The final Rush Hour concert of the season, which streamed online last week, was a fitting and splendid way to end the summer season for the International Music Foundation. The Kontras Quartet — made up of Eleanor Bartsch and Francois Henkins, violins; Ben Weber, viola; and Jean Hatmaker, cello — performed two well-known works plus one contemporary piece in a recording made in St. James Cathedral.
The Kontras Quartet opened their concert with Dmitri Shostakovich’s shortest string quartet, the Ninth. Written in the key of F-sharp minor, the work invites an interpretation of pain and suffering. As noted by helpful commentary before the quartet was performed, this was the key Bach used for the penitent Peter in the St. John Passion as well as the key of Mahler’s unfinished 10th symphony. Shostakovich dedicated the quartet, which he completed in 1960, to his deceased first wife Nina, who had died suddenly in 1954.
The quartet opened with a clear and crisp introduction. As the movement unfolded, there was tense energy as well as biting moments of drama. The pulsing agitation was well shaded, creating a dark yet impish impression.
The “Lento” had an eerie and almost still sense, even with the all the moving parts that accompany the gentle second violin melody. The players drew out the relative calm in a haunting and eerie way, full of veiled and mysterious nostalgia.
The quartet filled the final movement with musical belligerence in the fugue section. They brought fraught tension to their pizzicato which was tremendously effective, offering a hollow, anguished sound.
“Voodoo Dolls” by Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981), was commissioned by the JUMP! Dance Company of Rhode Island in 2008. The composer writes that, “the piece is influenced by west African drumming patterns and lyrical chant motives, all of which feature highlights of improvisation within the ensemble.”
The quartet offered a polished performance, opening with each of the players using full hands or just fingers on the wood of their instruments in a brief but effective drumming section. They brought vitality and animation and were adept with Montgomery’s sinuous melodies. In addition to the African contribution the composer highlighted, there were smaller influences that the quartet highlighted in their playing: blues, jazz, bluegrass, all weaved together in a very pleasing classical music framework.
The Kontras Quartet concluded their concert with an early Beethoven quartet, the Op. 18, No. 2 written in 1801. Here the quartet was able to bring out the good natured, good mannered sense of the music. Their playing was sunny and sturdy, witty and fun. The music danced, chatted, ambled, and celebrated. The players had charming ornaments and warm sound. The triumphant ending was completely satisfying.
This first season of streamed concerts by the International Music Foundation can only be judged a complete success, offering high quality music in simple yet high quality video presentation. Host Robbie Ellis began the season in a less than fully helpful way with too much chatter, but ended with a excellent sense of how to question and interact with the players so that the spoken sections complemented the music. This final concert found him drawing out the members of the Kontras Quartet, who offered interesting and insightful comments about the music.
All the Rush Hour concerts are archived online and it is well worth visiting IMFChicago.org to find chamber performances that will tickle and entertain.