A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
May 5, 2013
10:05 PM
Classically Speaking

Catching Up with the Ancora String Quartet

Catching Up with the Ancora String Quartet

It is hard enough to compete for attention in a city that is literally overflowing with worthy classical music events of every shape and size, but the Ancora String Quartet also deals with the circumstance that the Pro Arte Quartet casts a very long shadow in Madison’s chamber music life. That’s just the way it is when the Ancora is “only” twelve years old, and the Pro Arte is still finding ways to celebrate their centennial milestone of a year ago.

Fortunately there are no scoreboards in music (just scores!), and Saturday night in the Atrium Auditorium of the First Unitarian Society the Ancora String Quartet gave ample evidence that they continue to grow in interpretive polish and overall stature. I had last experienced them in person two years ago as they completed their tenth season, and it is a pleasure to report that they remain an ensemble very much worth keeping tabs on.

In a program perfectly balanced stylistically—the affable romanticism of Dvorak, standard-setting classicism of Haydn, and the rigors and depth of late Shostakovich—violinists Leanne Kelso League and Robin Ryan, violist Marika Fischer Hoyt and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb reminded us that the greatest string quartet music of any era is all about the intimacy of conversation, the multi-layered richness of interwoven expression.

The selection of six of Dvorak’s twelve “Cypresses” proved an insightful piece of programming, another reminder that, while the Czech master is not unknown, he still may rightly be considered underrated. Despite the fact that a number of his full-fledged quartets are solidly entrenched in the repertory, these early songs of unrequited love (an autobiographical touch at that) were later arranged for string quartet, are precious emotional snapshots that deserve wider hearings. The group picked their favorite half-dozen, and then split this musical six-pack into the first part of each of the program's halves.

This was Ancora’s first performance in the Atrium Auditorium, the regular meeting hall of the First Unitarian Society being their more regular, and intimate, Madison venue. The reverberant Atrium seemed to favor the lower strings—not that the overall balance emerged askew, simply that the richness of the viola and cello struck one as richer than ever.

The only acoustic challenge came in the finale of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 20, No. 2. Whitcomb took his turn in supplementing the printed program notes with some spoken insight, and the finale is reputed to be “sempre sotto voce” (“always whispered voice”) until the end of the work, but that hushed collective sound remained stubbornly medium volume.

But earlier, particularly in the aptly described “operatic” slow movement, the Ancora had fully demonstrated how this early Haydn work was one of the set that set the standard for what a string quartet could and would be for decades, before Beethoven gradually broke the mold.

Marika Fischer Hoyt’s elucidation of many of the intricate musical and biographical relationships of the Shostakovich greatly added to one’s enjoyment and appreciation of a work that can be daunting before its lively close. The extended second movement, a finale and then some, was highlighted by Whitcomb’s mesmerizing solos, first in the lower reaches of his instrument, answered by the other strings muted, and then a high solo. Later there was an extended pizzicato sequence for League that was given a powerfully reinforced effect by the hall’s acoustic.

The sizable audience responded with a long ovation that brought the foursome back for a well-deserved curtain call. The members as currently constituted have now been together for nine years; one can only hope that they continue to demonstrate the uniquely organic growth that is both peculiar, and essential to, all the great string quartets.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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