Since its foundation in 1948, Israel has developed a thriving classical music culture. The latest concert from Pro Musica Hebraica, presented Sunday night in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, was the first in the series to focus exclusively on music from that country. The Ariel Quartet, formed in Jerusalem, gave intense, even frenetic performances of four pieces for string quartet by three Israeli composers.
Paul Ben-Haim, born in Munich, wrote his first string quartet in 1937, and it fuses European and Jewish folk elements. On first violin, Alexandra Kazovsky was stretched a little thin, especially at the top of her range, where intonation and tone quality were not always reliable. Ben-Haim often turned the spotlight on the viola part, and Ariel violist Jan Grüning shone there, with a smoldering and juicy tone, making him a fine addition to the group since the last time I heard it, in 2011. Ben-Haim’s sugary Prelude for String Quartet, from 1973, was an even more overt tribute to folk music.
The high point of the program was Mark Kopytman’s third string quartet, from 1969, a few years before the Soviet-born composer immigrated to Israel. Unlike Ben-Haim, whose music was somewhat retrogressive in style, Kopytman incorporated dissonance and extended instrumental techniques familiar from the work of Bartok, and the strident brutality played to the Ariel’s strengths.
Only the last composer featured, Menachem Wiesenberg, was born in Israel, and his two-movement “Between the Sacred and the Profane,” from 1991, seemed the most self-consciously earnest in character, an episodic evocation of folk melodies commissioned by the Israeli Music Heritage Project. It was a relief when the encore, Steve Cohen’s “A Klezmer Nutcracker,” lightened the mood, weaving the Hanukkah song “Ma’oz Tzur” into a minor-mode, blue-noted version of Tchaikovsky’s holiday favorite.
Downey is a freelance writer.