Named for Telegraph Hill, an artsy neighborhood of San Francisco, Calif., the four young players of the Telegraph Quartet came to the Flagler Museum on Jan. 24 to demonstrate their winning ways.
Founded in 2013, after barely a year together they won the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition. In 2016 they carried off the Naumburg Chamber Music Competition, a prize that helped launch the Emerson String Quartet. That same year they were the only American quartet invited to play at the Paris Biennale String Quartet Symposium. Impressive credentials for a group just turning four years old.
The program began with Dvořák’s Cypresses, a piece for string quartet the composer arranged from an early song cycle of his. The unusual placement of the cello next the first violin caused a stir within the audience. Cellist Jeremiah Shaw explained that it made sense to have the inner voices of their quartet — violist Pei-Ling Lin and second violinist Joseph Maile — placed together, away from the heavy load mostly covered by Shaw and firs violinist Eric Chin.
Dvořák wrote 18 songs to poems by Moravian poet Gustav Pfleger-Moravsky in 1865, and in 1887 he rearranged Nos. 1, 2, 3, 9 and 11 for string quartet. No. 1, “I know That My Love to Thee” was romantic and sing-songy, evenly played with interesting cello pizzicato accompaniment. No. 2, “Death Reigns in Many a Human Breast,” opens with a ravishing violin solo, sweet and melodic, accompanied by the plucked strings of the other three. There’s a short exposition that returns to the opening solo, again ravishingly played by Chin’s first violin.
No. 3, “Nature Lies Peaceful in Slumber and Dreaming,” begins with muted strings. A sort of lullaby, quiet and soft, with all members playing pianissimo. At the end, the first violin has just a few bars of the muted tune, soaring heavenly music, nicely fashioned. No. 9 is unnamed and has a lively start with the lower three players racing up and down chromatic scales leading to a tuneful passage by the first violin, all of which ends very suddenly. Last was No. 11, also without a name. It’s a rollicking, happy lilting song, and it was beautifully played.
Haydn’s “Bird” Quartet (in C major, Op. 33, No. 3) followed. Haydn said he had written the Op. 33 quartets in an entirely new and special manner in 1782, having acquired a new rhythmic freedom and mastery of form since his Op. 20 attempts of 1773.
The Allegro moderato opens with sounds like hens pecking at seeds on the ground. This animated sound is passed around with the first violin making bird chirpings. In the development, the bird sounds become mysterious. The Scherzo is in the lower register, quiet with short accents at the ends of long phrases. The music is almost sacred in content, very unlike what is expected from a lively scherzo.
The Adagio is long and melodious with an exquisite solo from the first violin. His sounds magically waft overhead. (Then a real bird sound was heard on a cellphone. The embarrassed lady left in a hurry.) Writing richly and freely for all four instruments, Haydn enters the finale in rondo form. In his solo, first violinist Chin played so energetically it seemed he might leave his chair and run around the room.
Moving to weightier stuff, the Telegraph closed with Robert Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 (in A, Op. 44, No. 3). In April 1842, Schumann ordered the scores of all the Mozart and Beethoven quartets available in Leipzig, studied them for two months and in a frenzy of creative energy, in July of that year, he finished three string quartets; the only chamber music he ever wrote without piano. This, his third quartet, is the biggest and most accomplished.
It opens slowly and expressively; fragments of a melody are played three times. Each is answered in the main section. A falling two-note figure follows, taken from the slow introduction, which becomes an important element as a new musical idea, nicely developed, which ends the movement. The agitated theme-and-variations second movement was marvelously played, as all four artists went after it with gusto, providing superb music-making.
Tender and passionate is the music that opens the third movement. Is it an effusive, extended love song to Schumann’s wife, Clara? I’m sure he had her in mind. The fact he gives the viola the most lovely music to play may bear this out. Lovely pizzicatos from cellist Shaw were noteworthy accompaniments to Lin’s viola. As a body, the quartet’s playing projected beautifully, with a silvery sound that swirls around the room, washing overhead.
The finale (Molto vivace) was a vigorous free rondo. The first violin passes his opening happy tune to all the others. Two-note cries of joy go the rounds of all four players, now accentuated, now in unison. Here, the unusual placement of the cello next to the first violin worked well.
It said something impressive about the Flagler series that this fine quartet would come all the way from San Francisco to perform in this venue. They were an excellent group, and we’d be happy to have them back.