With an important Van Gogh exhibit set to open at the Phillips Collection next week, the gallery began its concert season on Sunday with a program by the Phillips Camerata of string quartets by Van Gogh’s contemporaries Debussy, Saint-Saens and Bizet to celebrate the occasion.
The Debussy String Quartet that led things off was the afternoon’s high point, in large measure because, when the chips are down, the Debussy is just a better piece of music than either the Bizet “L’Arlesienne Suite” No. 1 or the Saint-Saens E Minor String Quartet. The first violinist in this piece was Miranda Cuckson, a fiddler with a splendid sense of line and ensemble but whose sound had an edge to it that seemed a little bright in that context. Nevertheless this was an assured performance in which each instrument took ownership of the shape, weight and color of its individual lines and then managed to come together in an ensemble that seemed miraculously inevitable.
The Bizet offered few of the challenges the Debussy had presented and didn’t get nearly the care. Marc Ramirez replaced Olivia Hajioff in the viola chair and maintained the vivid colors the quartet had managed in the Debussy, but quick up-beats were ragged, and endings, which had been so beautifully shaped in the earlier piece, particularly by cellist Charlie Powers, were simply abrupt here.
Violinist Karen Johnson switched from second to first chair for the Saint-Saens and was a rock, rhythmically, through miles of lightning-like off-beat passages that rolled out with astonishing balance and precision. Johnson plays with a woody, slightly grainy tone that suited the French idiom well, and she barreled through the showy drama of Saint-Saens’s enthusiastic showmanship with impressive energy and accuracy.
Reinthaler is a freelance writer.