Ancora Quartet: If the Name Doesn’t Mean “Encore,” It Should

In a month that rains quartet performances, Ancora makes their mark yet again

 

The arrival of the Lion King to the Overture Center this month may have pushed the larger, more flashy ensembles into an earlier than usual summer break (more or less!—none of them really stop completely of course), but May has brought us a bumper crop of quartet performances. First was the Pro Arte Quartet, taking part in the “Performing the Jewish Archive” series, and last Friday night I reunited at long last with the Ancora Quartet.

It must have been about three years since I last enjoyed their unique brand of intimacy and precisely matched balances; first violinist Leanne Kelso League was about to begin a two-year leave of absence, and now she’s completing her first full season back. If there was any re-acclimation period last summer or fall, last Friday it was as if League had never been gone from the other members: Robin Ryan, violin, Marika Fischer Hoyt viola, and Benjamin Whitcomb (all pictured above in a photo courtesy of Barry Lewis).

The venue was the Grand Hall of the Capitol Lakes Center; if the name is a bit larger than life, it certainly describes the acoustic. In a large room that would easily seat something over a hundred listeners, about 80 or so took in a wonderful program of Schubert, Mozart, Sullivan and a “mystery piece.” The performance was an under-the-radar event, preceding the Ancora’s official concert at the First Unitarian Society, where the group is the official quartet in residence.

But Friday’s concert was no glorified dress rehearsal; from the opening moments of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 13 in A minor, D. 804 the foursome were as polished, poised and pristine as one would have hoped. This Schubert was stirred, not shaken, and in the case of this opus that was a very good thing indeed. The work drips melancholia (composed less than four years before Schubert’s premature death, and during a really rough stretch of circumstances to boot), and to verge into pathos or even slight extremes of dynamics and/or phrasing would be to mar a divinely proportioned work. The slow movement uses a theme more famous for its appearance in the Rosamunde  ballet music. The finale provided some flash for League, and at the risk of suggesting that anyone dominated disproportionately (they didn’t), Whitcomb’s tone must be singled out again for its velvety richness and singing quality.

The group had some fun with a “mystery piece,” admittedly not originally written for string quartet, and anyone who could come up with the closest guess as to what it was won a pair of tickets for a concert next season. I was off my game and came no closer than a vaguely accurate assessment that the style was Baroque. Then again, the closest anyone else came was Bach—but it was a movement from Handel’s Water Music. Well played on two counts!

The other major entry was Mozart’s so-called “Dissonant” Quartet, the last of the six he dedicated to Haydn. Again the group resisted the temptation in the famous introduction to over-emphasize the titular harmonic clashes. Better yet, we learned that the Ancora possessed an even higher gear of blend and balance, especially in the second movement. The entire affair, ensemble, venue and repertoire was a powerful restatement of the best argument for chamber music: That rare combination of intimacy, power, and expression in a room that seems to exist simply to make wonderful sounds take on an added luster.

The musical nightcap was a delightful novelty, the Romance No. 1 in G Minor, from a very young Arthur Sullivan—decades before he became Sir Arthur due mostly to his timeless collaborations with William Gilbert (who was never knighted, as certain of his lyrics annoyed the Queen.). But we digress; let us sum up in a pithy manner the moral of Friday evening’s experience: We are so grateful to have met the Ancora Quartet once more, and solemnly promise not to let three more years pass before doing so again!

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