By Dennis D. Rooney
The Rolston String Quartet is a foursome of young Canadians and Americans who play under a name honoring the distinguished Canadian pedagogue, Thomas Rolston (1932-2010), longtime director of music (1979-2004) at the Banff School of the Arts.
The members, who played a concert Jan. 19 at the Duncan Theatre’s Stage West, boast an impressive list of accomplishments. Their playing is highly impressive in intonation, razor-sharp ensemble, and musical impulse. But their tone is almost unrelievedly brilliant, tends toward an aggressive harshness and is lacking in warmth and expressive nuance.
At least on this occasion, their dynamics overpowered the acoustics of Stage West. The audience of about 60 was subjected to an onslaught of sound more appropriate to a space of 1,200 seats rather than 250-300.
Both halves of their program opened with a quartet by Haydn from his Op. 33, a set of six composed in 1781 and dedicated to the Grand Duke Paul of Russia, which accounts for the set’s nickname as the “Russian” Quartets. Two of the quartets are also nicknamed: No. 2 in E-flat (Hob. III:38), is known as “The Joke,” while No. 5 in G (Hob. III:41) is nicknamed “How Do You Do?” because of the four notes of its opening measures. The following Largo e cantabile is an accompanied aria for the first violin, including a brief written-out cadenza. The scherzo and Allegretto finale offer a felicitous conclusion in a conventional framework.
Leyendas by Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972) is a six-movement suite described by the composer as a “Peruvian walkabout,” combined Peruvian folk elements with classical music techniques. Her intention is to explore aspects of the idea of mestizaje as envisioned by the Peruvian writer Jose María Arguedas, “wherein cultures co-exist without the subjugation of one by the other.”
Folk elements include the sound of traditional Peruvian and Andean flutes, which are not at all similar to the dulcet sonorities of the transverse flute. Emulation of their sonority by strings is already a stretch. The resultant sounds are mainly harsh and quite dissonant.
In prefatory remarks, second violinist Jason Issokson mentioned a strong resemblance in some sections to the quartets of Bartók, but I heard little to suggest the lissome movement and mysterious character of those works. Most of the movements were only a few minutes long, but the fifth, Canto de Velorio, which depicts the activities of a keener or professional mourner, hired to add pathos to funerary rites, is almost twice as long.
A soft quasi-liturgical melody intoned by the first violin gradually builds over the course of the movement to a climax of great emotional intensity. It’s no surprise to learn that the work has performed by string orchestra, which could convey the work’s many colors more easily.
Haydn’s Quartet in D, Op. 33, No. 6 (Hob. III:42) opened the program’s second half. Most of the repeats were ignored, but its scherzo in minuet tempo and variations finale made it a short but pleasant prelude to Mendelssohn’s Quartet in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2. Composed in 1837, it has large sonata-form outer movements, an entirely characteristic scherzo of effervescent deftness, and a slow movement whose melody recalls the composer’s Songs Without Words.
The Rolstons were sympathetic to its agitated and passionate open and close, and to the concertante instrumental challenges. However, as intensity built over the finale’s closing pages, their sound grew more and more hectoring. Given the strengths of their performance, one trusts that age and experience will improve their tonal shortcomings.