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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 67.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Ancora String Quartet bring powerful Shostakovich to First Unitarian Society's new performance space

Credit:John Devereaux

The Ancora String Quartet gave their final performance of the 2012-13 season at the First Unitarian Society on May 4. The novelty was that the performance was given not in the usual setting in the building complex, the original meeting hall that is now called the "Landmark" auditorium, but in the new "Atrium" hall.

The latter hall is far more spacious and, above all, reverberant. How that affects chamber-music performance compared to the older hall was one of the factors not only in the minds of the audience but also the quartet players, in their first experience there.

Though chamber ensembles, especially string quartets, have managed in large halls, the idiom of chamber music tends to work better in smallish settings, the more intimate the better in most cases. So what was the showing of this experiment?

The material opening each half of the program was of Romantic vintage: half of the 12 "Cypresses," Antonín Dvorák's string-quartet arrangements of a cycle of songs he composed during a youthful experience with unrequited love. The original melodic lines, swathed in string cushioning, stood up well in the warmth and richness provided by the hall.

The second item was Haydn's String Quartet in C, Op. 20, No. 2. A product of his early maturity, and of his fertile defining of the string-quartet form, this is a work that combines elegance, craftsmanship, and humor. The ensemble played it with obvious pleasure and affection, as well as precision. Rich as the acoustics are, they still allowed for each instrument to be heard distinctly.

The final item was a blockbuster: String Quartet No. 12, Op. 133, by Dmitri Shostakovich. Composed in 1968 for his "house" ensemble of friends, the Beethoven Quartet, it is full of in-group jokes, including a flirtation with, and dismissal of, a tone-row on the order of the atonal doctrines then in international fashion. For all the humor, though, it is an intense work, full of dark brooding and chaotic frenzy, all woven into an extended score of jarring power.

In this I felt the acoustics were not an advantage. If any composer's chamber music requires dry acoustics, to stress the sting and bite and punch of provocation, it is Shostakovich's. Such qualities were comparatively smoothed out in this performance, for all the wonderful strength the quartet put into it.

Opinions were eventually exchanged afterwards. I cannot pretend to offer an accurate survey of all of them, but I think preferences were divided between the two halls. I was not alone in feeling a preference for the closer intimacy and directness of the older hall. There are, indeed, merits to the new one, and I suggest no black-and-white distinction. Still, I rather hope the Ancora String Quartet will return to the older hall for at least some of their next season. And I say that despite my horror of its midget-size benches that serves as seating.

The important thing, of course, is that the Ancora String Quartet has the benefit of choice in its continued affiliation with the First Unitarian Society, and will use that choice to further their invaluable contributions to Madison's musical life.

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