If you like your string quartets on the suave side, you might want to keep a safe distance from the Johannes String Quartet. These four virtuosos don't obsess with blending and subduing their sound. In their intense yet highly articulate Wednesday night concert at the Terrace Theater, the quartet brought out the entirety of the music's brilliant colors and textures.
Rarely has Mozart's stately Quartet in G, K. 387, been heard with such transparency and volume. The crystalline elegance of this work was still there as rising figures from the rich cello of Peter Stumpf and burnished viola of Choong-Jin Chang intermingled with the lyrical lines of violinists Soovin Kim and Catherine Cho. Yet they played with such athleticism and energy that it seemed for a moment that the group was playing to a 2,500-seat concert hall.
The concentrated energy of the Johannes manifested itself as heightened emotional expression in Anton Webern's String Quartet (1905). This vigorous reading stressed the more romantic influences of Webern's early composition career.
After the soft figuration intoned by Cho's violin in the initial bars, the quartet played with a mournfully sweet tone and songful lyricism.
The ensemble rode Brahms's impetuous Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51, No. 1 for all it was worth. The poignancy of the Adagio was matched only by the ghostly atmosphere conjured up in the Scherzo. Flanking these carefully delivered center movements were a blistering opening and finale, where braying low strings clashed with the violins in a giant storm of sound.
-- Daniel Ginsberg
The musicians of the Panocha Quartet, a veteran group from the Czech Republic, practice restraint in its best sense: They judge just how much emphasis and emotion the music they play needs and take care to go no further. At the Library of Congress on Wednesday, the merits of this approach showed themselves in three very different works.
The relatively simple textures and rhythms of Haydn's String Quartet No. 6 in D, Op. 33, demand more sensitive handling than many quartets provide. The Panocha players precisely judged internal dynamics to allow the instrumental conversation to blossom, found the pathos in the dark slow movement without making it into a dirge and gave the rhythms of the Scherzo a charge without forgetting the minuet from which it had evolved.
Bedrich Smetana's dense, angry second quartet poses a completely different challenge: Its whipsawing emotions and gear-stripping tempo changes seem to demand hyper-aggressive playing. The Panocha gave full voice to the storms but never let them rage out of control, bringing out the odd logic of the quartet's organization (especially its near-obsessive repetitions), and the result was all the more chilling.
Like much of Antonin Dvorak's chamber music, the String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 51 ("Slavonic"), sometimes feels like a collection of beautiful lyrical episodes that don't quite cohere into a large-scale work. The quartet played its Czech melodies with irresistible ardor and idiomatic feeling, particularly in the dumka slow movement, but also avoided any outsize gestures that might have made transitions from one moment to the next less smooth -- a final instance in which a measured approach reaped great rewards.
-- Andrew Lindemann Malone
Steve Poltz would have rather been watching the ball game. But the California singer-songwriter had a show to do. And the 25 or so people who showed up at Jammin' Java Wednesday night expected him to do it.
So Poltz grabbed his acoustic guitar and launched straight into "Silver Lining," which ponders "overpaid Yankee teams" and the legacy of former portly infielder John Kruk. That baseball fix began a two-hour show that was a typical Poltz mix of absurdist humor, acoustic fingerpicking and gently rolling meditations on the quirky side of life.
Poltz's bio touts him as "Bob Hope's favorite altar boy" and "the winner of 'San Diego's Most Influential Artist of the Decade'," but he's best known as the co-writer of Jewel's "You Were Meant for Me" and main man in smart-aleck college rockers the Rugburns. He revved up a few 'Burns songs Wednesday, charging through "Mama," "Tree Hugger" and "Me and Eddie Vedder." But as with Loudon Wainwright III, the artist whom he most clearly resembles, Poltz's greatest strengths are revealed during reflective sketches like "Stax" and "Spiderboy," songs that matched humorous asides and bittersweet lines on love and relationships with soft, folky melodies.
Half the fun of a Poltz gig is hearing him talk -- aside from Billy Bragg, he may be the best between-song-banter man going -- and he was in good form Wednesday, spewing on everything from a medical exam to lawyers to his friend's bar. And though he was diverted for a midshow report that the Sox were ahead 6-0, Poltz had long since proved that he could be just as entertaining as any baseball game.
-- Patrick Foster