By Brett Wines
String quartets play chamber music, which has always been intended for relatively small audiences. After the concert, the Brentano String Quartet’s second violinist, Serena Canin, remarked that the group usually plays in smaller venues than Dinkelspiel Auditorium, one of the largest on campus, which was almost three-quarters full on Sunday afternoon. However, the warm sounds of the stringed instruments created such a homey atmosphere that any doubts about the perhaps unsuitably large turnout were immediately and happily forgotten.
The concert opened with a series of four Renaissance-era pieces by Orlando Gibbons and the well-known William Byrd. The quartet’s enormous talent was obvious not only in each member’s mastery of his instrument, but also in how it managed to stay perfectly in sync even in pizzicato sections, which are notoriously difficult for any music group without a conductor. Historically, string quartets came after the Renaissance era, but that didn’t prevent the Brentano String Quartet from effortlessly transporting the audience 400 years into the past.
No Brentano String Quartet concert would be complete without a Beethoven string quartet given that the group’s name comes from the probable name of Beethoven’s mysterious “Immortal Beloved,” a woman whose identity to this day remains unclear. They played op. 135, the F major quartet, to great applause at the end of the first half of the concert.
The second half of the program — a series of short pieces, each about four minutes — showcased the quartet’s impressive ability to switch between distant genres with great ease. Each piece was different from the previous: the program jumped from a piece by eyebrow-raising Charles Ives (made all the more so due to the fact that it was a scherzo) to the beautiful second movement of Tchaikovsky’s D major quartet to an arrangement of Robert Pete Williams’s “I’ve Grown So Ugly,” which involved the cellist slapping her instrument to create sounds one wouldn’t ever expect to hear from a stringed instrument. When that last piece was over, the audience erupted in giggles.
The quartet manipulated the audience’s emotion with the skill of a great cellist bowing his instrument, from the sadness of Tchaikovsky to the playfulness of Williams, to the second Dvorak waltz, the sunniness of which would have had this author up and happily waltzing in a heartbeat.
Though the audience was mostly geriatric, at the end of the two hours there was no languor in the audience’s leaping to its feet for a thundering ovation. It seems that Stanford unequivocally thinks the more string quartet concerts, the better! As will any other venue fortunate enough to be on the Brentano String Quartet’s tour.