John Frayne | Jupiter String Quartet’s violent ‘Upheaval’ hits close to home

By Chicago 5 Min Read

The title of the Jupiter String Quartet concert on Oct. 3 in Foellinger Great Hall at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts was “Upheaval,” and the works included in the program were presumably reacting to challenging and violent events, producing music that reflects such violence or mourns the results of it.

Little did the quartet members know on Oct. 3 what upheaval would break out in the Middle East just a few days later.

The concert began with String Quartet No. 3 by Anglo-Irish composer Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994). Maconchy, after studies in London, went to Czecholovakia, where she was exposed to the music of Bela Bartok, a major influence on her own music. Written in 1938, the craggy, high-strung music of this quartet may have reflected the crisis in Central Europe that led to the infamous Munich Agreement of September 1938.

Maconchy’s quartet opens slowly with rich harmonies, which expressed intense emotions.

The first violin issues a plaintive outcry, and the four instruments interweave lyrical patches with much dramatic pizzicato writing, leading to a final long held note.

The second work, “Medusa,” was by Nathan Shields, born 1983, who earned his master’s and doctoral degrees from Juilliard and is associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

He won a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2022, and his work during that fellowship was “Medusa,” written for the Jupiter String Quartet. The composer stated that this work “uses the paintings of Caravaggio as an inspiration for exploring the effect of various types of political and social violence.”

Caravaggio (1571-1610) painted many scenes of violence, and his work employs “chiaroscuro,” the

dramatic contrast of brightly lit portions of a scene with other areas of darkness.

This performance of “Medusa” was explained by a member of the quartet on stage. During the playing of “Medusa,” images of the three paintings were shown on the stage.

The first of these works, “The Conversion of St. Paul,” opened quietly, but, with growing intensity, it resulted in a lament. A sad, melancholy passage was played by cellist Daniel McDonough.

The second portion, a response to the famous painting entitled “Bacchus,” elicited more passionate music, which mounted to a near-hysterical pitch, which reminded me of Shostakovich at his most agitated moods.

The third work, a wild, grotesque self-portrait as Medusa, drew from Shields more music expressing active anxiety, but the music grew slower and quieter, trailing off in silence.

My reaction to this presentation was that, with a work of this complexity, perhaps printed notes are required.

The third work, by Carlos Simon, born 1986, was entitled “An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave.” This threnody was a musical reaction to the violent deaths of three males, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Michael Brown, who, in the words of the composer, “have been murdered wrongfully by an oppressive power.”

Simon’s music moves from quiet grief to a central passage of anguished conflict leading to a final peaceful chord.

The audience was requested to refrain from applause at the end of Simon’s piece.

All three of the above works were played with committed energy and tonal finesse by the quartet members.

The first part of the program ended with a short piece not on the printed program. It was “The Fretful Ghost,” by William Bolcom, born 1938.

With a feathery opening, this quirky piece moved along with ghost ragtime rhythm and the cello carrying the tune to a throwaway end.

The second part of the program was a splendid performance by the quartet of Ludwig van Beethoven’s great String Quartet No. 8, the middle quartet of the Opus 59 “Razumovsky” Quartets.

After the first movement, with its passages expressing struggles, the serene passages of the second movement were beautifully played by the quartet.

For those familiar with Modeste Mussorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov,” it would be a surprise and pleasure to hear Beethoven’s sped-up version of the Russian song “Glory to God in Heaven,” which, in the operatic version, is sung at Boris’ coronation. Beethoven’s fast-paced finale drew the shouting audience up to a standing ovation.

Speaking of upheaval and Russians, this Beethoven quartet was written in the summer of 1806, some months after Napoleon’s army had occupied Vienna, having defeated, on Dec. 2, 1805, at Austerlitz, the combined armies of Austria and Russia.

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