Players excel in technical complexity during the show

The Society of the Four Arts hosted the charming Danish String Quartet on a windy Wednesday evening at the Walter S. Gubelmann Auditorium.

This unassuming group has been performing together since they were friends at school. The group started with three Danes, violinists Frederik Øland and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard. Later in 2008, they added Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, whom they described as someone who “…looked like a character from ‘Game of Thrones'”. They love their beards and make fun of each other. They also want us to understand their raison d’être: to have fun and share their endearing camaraderie with the public.

The Danish String Quartet offered unique lineup choices, starting with Benjamin Britten’s “Three Divertimenti for String Quartet.” Written in 1936, this deconstructed set of courtly dances includes a march, a waltz, and a burlesque as movements. Divertimenti are not meant to be taken too seriously and are offered as light entertainment, true to the ethos of the ensemble.

However, the music provided intellectual stimulation as the audience experienced the familiar dance meters through Britten’s compositional lens. Like Joseph Haydn, Britten’s music contains many humorous moments as he readily incorporates musical “jokes” into his works.

Each piece in the Britten set was a marvel of precision and bowing control that required hard stops and bowing. Players knew how to ring their instruments around the room on outings to add an extra effect. The last movement, the Burlesque, was technically perfect and evenly balanced in the instruments. The audience particularly appreciated the pizzicato passages, responding with enthusiastic applause.

In an unusual lineup choice, the quartet combined dances from works by contemporary American composer John Adams, French Baroque composer Marc-Antoine Charpentier, and Romantic Russian pianist and composer Felix Blumenfeld in a piece called “An Alleged Suite.”

The effect was almost like a dance and a variation, starting with Charpentier’s majestic “Prélude” and injected with moves from Adams’ “John’s Book of Alleged Dances”. Musicians seem to crave technical complexity; indeed, they excel at it. But facing the Charpentier, the French baroque idiom seemed to shock their program while asking us once again to have fun and not take it too seriously. It wasn’t until they passionately played the musical sequences that the power of the combined suite became apparent.

The quartet returned to the stage after the intermission to perform a cornerstone of string quartet literature, Franz Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” quartet (String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, D. 810 ). Every movement was executed with spirit and technical agility, with astonishing clarity of balance throughout.

The best responses of the evening came from a group of string students in attendance who were “blown away” by the ensemble’s presentation and inspired to return home and practice more on their instruments. For many it was their first exposure to John Adams and Britten’s “Divertimenti”. Ultimately, this is perhaps the greatest triumph of the Society of the Four Arts: inspiring the next generation.

Sharon D. Cole