Takacs quartet

Takacs Quartet review: Lush but low-risk performances of the classics

Renowned string quartet's warm, beautiful interpretations leave a few frustrations.

by CHARLES NOBLE

Portland has a love affair with the Takacs Quartet. It’s not hard to see why. The four players (the two remaining founding members, second violinist Károly Schranz and cellist András Fejér, first violinist Edward Dusinberre, who joined in 1993, and violist Geraldine Walther, who joined in 2005) are all enormously appealing as personalities. Warmth and humor define them in their public appearances, whether they be signing recordings in the lobby after a concert, or giving one of their many masterclasses to students in each city they visit.

The Takacs Quartet performed at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

The Takacs Quartet performed at Portland State University. Photo: John Green.

The quality of the ensemble is undeniable. They have won countless laurels during their 39-year history. Gramophone magazine recently inducted them into its Classical Music Hall of Fame. These concerts were the first time I’d heard them live since the departure of violist Roger Tapping and the introduction of his replacement, Walther. And while their Friends of Chamber Music concerts this past Monday and Tuesday at Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall were of a very high standard, they raised some niggling doubts about the quartet that I once regarded as almost second to none in the pantheon of great quartets.

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Takács Quartet performs Monday and Tuesday night at Portland State University. Photo: Patrick Ryan

Takács Quartet performs Monday and Tuesday night at Portland State University. Photo: Patrick Ryan

Thanksgiving music programming is usually as slow as most of us are moving post-feast, but Oregonians seeking refuge from football, family, leftovers and tryptophan will find some worthy musical offerings over this long weekend and beyond.

Takács Quartet Monday and Tuesday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University. A few string quartets have bigger names, but I’ve never heard one that combined such passion, commitment and skill in the core classical repertoire. There’s a reason Friends of Chamber Music brings them back to Oregon every chance they get: they’re simply the best. Monday’s concert features quartets by Mozart, Bartok and Smetana; Tuesday’s has Mozart, Beethoven and Dvorak’s ever popular “American” quartet.

Voxare Quartet, Sunday, University of Oregon’s Beall Concert Hall. Hear why so many Oregonians want to name Portland’s newest bridge after its greatest composer when the acclaimed young foursome plays Portland-born composer Lou Harrison’s 1979 “String Quartet Set” in the ChamberMusic@Beall series. Originally recorded by Kronos Quartet, Harrison’s majestic 1979 quartet seamlessly integrates French Baroque, medieval and Turkish influences, and the excellent program also features quartets by Bartok and Mendelssohn.

Collegium Musicum, Tuesday, University of Oregon Collier House, Eugene. The college’s early music ensemble performs Baroque music that involves substantial improvisation by Handel, Barbara Strozzi.

ORCHESTRAL

PSU Symphony with the Portland Ballet, Friday-Sunday, Lincoln Hall, Portland State University. The young dancers are accompanied by the orchestra playing a pair of magic-infused ballet scores, Respighi’s “The Enchanted Toyshop” and Stravinsky’s “The Firebird,” in these 90-minute, no-intermission afternoon and evening performances

Oregon Symphony, with vocalist Jackie Evancho, Saturday, Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland. The young singer from America’s Got Talent sings movie hits.

CHORAL AND VOCAL

Christmas Festival of Lights Friday through December 30, The Grotto, NE 85th and Sandy Boulevard, Portland. Every night for the rest of the year, various school, church and community choirs from the Portland metro area will be singing in one of the loveliest spots in the state.

Trinity Choir, Saturday and Sunday, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral, Portland. One of the best church choirs around sings Advent music.

Vakare Petroliunaite, soprano and Rebecca Stager, piano, Wednesday, St. Andrews Care Center 7617 SE Main Street, Portland. The Julians singer brings some of her bandmates for this open-to-the-public recital of winter music by Schubert, Debussy, Mozart, Handel, Jake Heggie and more.

"Buster" Harrison, ready to steal the show in a 1920 Portland production of "Daddy Long Legs."

“Buster” Harrison, ready to steal the show in a 1920 Portland production of “Daddy Long Legs.”

By the way, the deadline for submitting names for Portland’s new bridge is December 1, and Lou Harrison is a worthy choice. Born in Portland in 1917, he’s now recognized as not only Oregon’s greatest composer but one of America’s most important and widely accessible. Along with co-inventing the percussion ensemble, composing some of the greatest dance scores of the 20th century (for choreographers such as Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Jean Erdman and others), writing music for performers like Keith Jarrett, Yo Yo Ma, Kronos Quartet and more, Harrison is considered the godfather of the world music movement for his pioneering fusions of Asian and Western classical music forms. The grand old maverick of American music loved his hometown (where he performed onstage at age 3) and returned from his base in California to work with Oregon musicians such as Oregon Repertory Singers, Portland Gay Men’s Chorus, Venerable Showers of Beauty gamelan, and others. He also wrote several original ballet scores during residencies at Reed College for performances there. No American composer built sturdier bridges between musical cultures. With Harrison’s centenary approaching in 2017, we hope his native city and state will find a way to celebrate his bountiful legacy. Oh, and lest we forget: our tribute to this weekend’s REAL contemporary American holy day.

 

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Portland Gay Men's Chorus sings gay holiday songs this weekend at Portland's Newmark Theater

It’s finals week, for those of us involved in academia, but there’s more going on on campus than just exams.  Although perhaps not as operatic as the antics of university sports teams and presidential firings, and certainly not as polished as their professional counterpoints, Oregon university classical concerts sometimes take on fresher material than sometimes stodgy institutions that rely on ticket sales and subscriptions, and they often bubble with the kind of enthusiasm that 20-somethings — both in the audience and onstage — bring to rock shows and Autzen stadium.

College performances are also usually considerably more informal and affordable than the usual classical ticket. (And yes, many publications impose a de facto ban on covering student productions, although happily not so much in Oregon.)

This is especially true in Eugene, where the University of Oregon School of Music and Danceboasts some of the most accomplished students and creative faculty in the West. Although the city hosts some excellent classical performers, for listeners seeking musical adventure, UO concerts at Beall Concert Hall and elsewhere — whether played by its top-notch faculty like the Oregon String Quartet, by touring ensembles in its chamber music and world music and other presenting series, or by student groups — are usually the top choice on any given day.

Now, as you’ll see below, the UO has birthed an important new ensemble that debuts this weekend. Portland, too, boasts fine faculty performing groups like Lewis & Clark College’s Friends of Rain and Portland State University’s Florestan Trio, and PSU in particular regularly contributes immensely to the community by hosting performances of other Oregon and touring musicians.

Friends of Chamber Music brings the Takacs Quartet to Portland Monday and Tuesday. Photo credit: Ellen Appel.

“The Schumann songs are a bit gloomy — well, they’re very gloomy! — but I wanted to do that. When you think of these 19th-century composers, a lot of them dealt with depression, and some of their best work came out of depressing periods. It’s just amazing stuff. So I went there with the Schumann.”

Singer Eric Owens, in San Francisco Classical Voice.

I realize the days are nearing their shortest of the year — but did vocal recitalist Eric Owens have to remind us of that fact by bringing Oregon one of the darkest song programs in recent memory? For the morose first half of his Friends of Chamber Music recital at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall last week, the powerful bass baritone, ably accompanied by last- minute replacement pianist Jay Rozendaal from Seattle Opera and Western Washington University, chose somber repertoire  — as dark and heavy as a German winter beer — by Schubert, the above mentioned Schumann and Austrian composer Hugo Wolf. Owens’ glowering voice captured the desolate, angst-ridden emotional landscape of settings of poems by Goethe and others as clearly and effectively as he’s done in his famous opera roles.

So effectively, in fact, that I wasn’t sure how many listeners would return for the second set, but those who managed to avoid suicide at intermission returned to a gradually lightening songscape of French repertoire, especially after the three Henri Duparc songs gave way to Maurice Ravel’s evocative Don Quixote music, whose closing “Drinking Song” finally drew some much needed laughter. You know it’s a bleak night when Wagner (the rousing Two Grenadiers) lightens the mood.

I have to admit that I’d hoped for some of the contemporary repertoire that Owens has earned plaudits for, but as he told SFCV, “I’m a person who sings a lot of new music, so I wanted to make an effort to sing 19th- and early-20th-century music, and to represent the two languages that are most associated with recital — that’s German and French,” both with the accent on despair.

Fortunately, Owens’ two encores (which the enthusiastic audience demanded — obviously not all of them were as bummed out as I was) finally let the light in. Owens called Henry Purcell’s tender “Music for a While” particularly close to his heart, and it sure sounded that way. And his lovingly rendered closing spiritual — “my answer to the Schumann set,” he said — “Shall We Gather at the River” washed the gloom away.

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