By Ava Figliuzzi
The Duncan Theatre’s Stage West, a charming, small venue on the campus of Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth Beach, opened its Classical Café Series on Wednesday afternoon (Jan. 11) with the young Ulysses Quartet.
Founded in 2015, the Ulysses Quartet has garnered top prizes at the Schoenfeld and Fischoff competitions and held recent fellowship positions at The Juilliard School. This spring, they will begin a residency at Louisiana State University.
The quartet members entered, dressed in shades of Floridian corals, and began with Germaine Tailleferre’s String Quartet, an underperformed three-movement work written in 1919.
This short burst of experimental yet cogent music has the flavoring of French Impressionism but possesses discernible other features in line with her contemporaries in Les Six: Poulenc, Milhaud, Honegger, Auric, and Durey. The beliefs of Les Six led them away from over-the-top Impressionism in favor of directness, an orientation that is apparent in Tailleferre’s quartet.
From the opening measures, the chemistry of the quartet’s players was gratifyingly apparent. A lush, lovely group sound suited Tailleferre’s melancholic harmonies as well as her more animated rhythmic motifs. Rich solos from violist Colin Brookes and an enchanting range of colors from first violinist Christina Bouey were especially impressive. The muted yet sprightly second movement and virtuosic, polytonal finale showed Ulysses’s skill and precision to tasteful effect.
Adhering to a casual afternoon ambience, the players stayed on stage between each piece to offer verbal commentary and introductions. They opted out of written program notes, so the remarks were welcome.
The First Quartet of Dmitri Shostakovich followed the Tailleferre and emerged as the program’s high point of technique and unity. The blend and balance were excellent, and Bouey captured the uncharacteristically playful, simplistic beauty of the melodies — “spring-like,” as described by the composer himself.
Here we also heard the strength of the inner voices in projecting the music’s punctuating interludes. Second violinist Rhiannon Banerdt showed her full tone best in the Shostakovich; her sound often got lost in the Tailleferre and later pieces. Although on technical par with Bouey, Banerdt did not always provide enough presence when it was necessary to do so.
Brookes’ second movement viola solo was well-executed with a creamy tone and refreshingly animated vibrato. Unity in articulation throughout the scherzo was quite good, a strong point for cellist Grace Ho. A wishy-washy cello sound can unmoor a scherzo, but Ho made sure the ensemble was standing on solid ground. In the finale, the foursome employed a powerful, unrelenting energy that was very satisfying.
A non-traditionally played set of three pieces arranged by the Danish String Quartet — the Swedish folksong “Polska from Dorotea,” Fredrik Sjolin’s “Shore,” and Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen’s “Shine You No More” — came next. Bouey dazzled with a stylistically folksy sound complete with less classical bow techniques, slides, poofs of rosin sent into the air, and a well-improvised cadenza in the last song.
After intermission came Schubert’s monumental String Quartet No. 14 (Death and the Maiden). Banerdt playfully commented on Schubert coming to terms with mortality at the point of composition in 1824 — when he was younger than all the Ulysses players — to which Bouey interjected “not that much younger.” Wearing smiles, they plunged into the perils of mortality with an emphatically slow tempo in the opening several measures. This may have provided more contrast to the following ominous march forward, played suddenly quicker by Ulysses, although Schubert does not notate any tempo change.
This performance had real intensity, although the interpretation was solidly on the Romantic side concerning bow strokes, vibrato, shifting, and timing. In the first movement’s transition into the recapitulation, a conspicuous accelerando was added, another concession to Romanticism.
Sometimes such choices seemed to take the piece away from the realm of Schubert, especially in the second movement, but this is the line a group must walk when playing a composition perched between two stylistic periods. In any case, the Ulysses’ reading of this work was unified.
Ho had shining moments, showcasing a lovely tone and technique, notably in the second movement’s cello solo. Compared to the previously programmed pieces, the fiendishly difficult Schubert did not show the same assured finesse in intonation and tone, and I found myself wishing for more true pianissimi.
But the group brought persuasive tempi and energy to the Scherzo and Presto movements, which proved to be a crowd-pleasing end to a most effective concert.