Wrapping up a three-day residency at the University of Maryland on Friday, the Miami String Quartet partnered with Excelsa, the School of Music’s Graduate Fellowship Quartet for this year and one of the groups the Miami group had been mentoring. The result was a fittingly fresh and youthful-sounding performance of the octet Mendelssohn wrote when he was 16 years old. It was the concluding piece on the Miami ensemble’s program at the Clarice Smith Center and, while it probably could have used another week or so of rehearsing to get the two groups really matched, the cellos had already forged a working relationship that projected power and excitement.
On its own, the Miami Quartet gave beautifully structured accounts of Joan Tower’s “Angels” (String Quartet No. 4) and the Shostakovich Quartet No. 9, readings that emphasized transparency and balance without any hint of premeditation.
Tower’s piece, a single 18-minute movement, is a tone poem inspired by her brother’s heart attack and the people (the “Angels”) who helped him back to health. Its two recurring thematic elements, a fluttering alternation of whole and half-step intervals and long slides up and down the strings that passed seamlessly from one instrument to another, were used fluently to create powerful moments of anguished tension and quiet repose.
First violinist Benny Kim has a bow arm to die for, and he needed (and used) every ounce of its athleticism in the Shostakovich. With its vivid progression of folk tunes, hymns, energetic dances, quiet reflection and, finally, galloping commotion, the quartet was pure fun and, although the performance emphasized clarity and balance, this never came at the expense of vigor or momentum.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.