Rhapsodie Quartet Leaves the Toys at Home

The ensemble best known for its HeartStrings work melts a Promenade Hall crowd

The Rhapsodie Quartet can most often be found at places like an Agrace hospice facility, Central Wisconsin Center, or a local school, not just performing, but viscerally impacting people of all ages who are dealing with some profound physical challenges. (You can read more about that here in a January 2015 feature I wrote for Madison Magazine). When they are doing their “music-therapy informed” work, first violinist Suzanne Beia is joyfully leading the way not only with her own arrangements for the quartet, but in passing out noisemakers (ok, simple instruments!) of various kinds to engage their special audience in a truly hands-on manner.

But when Beia took the stage Monday night at the Overture Center’s Promenade Hall with second violinist Laura Burns, violist Christopher Dozoryst and cellist Karl Lavine, the only thing a capacity audience needed was their sense of hearing. (The group is pictured above, courtesy of Katrin Talbot and the Madison Symphony Orchestra, which created HeartStrings; all the quartet members are long-time members of the MSO as well).

The program could hardly have been more simple: Two major pillars of the chamber music repertoire, beginning with Dvorak’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 96, “American.” The product of his years in the U.S. that also led to the “New World” Symphony, Dvorak’s irresistible tunes (Native American and Slavic-influenced) benefitted from the glowing, bright acoustic of the venue. Beia and Burns could not have been better matched in tone color or phrasing, and in the slow movement Beia’s gorgeous singing lines was supported by the other three in a magnificently sustained stretch of tension.

But the second half promised even bigger and for one auditor at least, better things. Allow me to set the record straight: For all his general popularity, I still find Dvorak a relatively underestimated composer, and his Op. 96 is probably my personal favorite of his many quartets. But the String Quintet in C Major, D. 956 of Schubert is within an eyelash of being my all-time favorite chamber work, period. The favorite, you ask? The Clarinet Quintet by Brahms; yes the bias is personal, as I was a clarinetist—but I’ve known a couple of string players in my life who second my nomination.

But come to think of it, they weren’t cellists, and I wouldn’t bet any amount of money that cellist Parry Karp would agree  with me in ranking Brahms ahead of this Schubert. Let us hasten to thank him, though, for joining the Rhapsodie Quartet for the additional cello part in Schubert’s transcendent opus. The one player of the five who was not a member of the MSO, he and Beia have the Pro Arte Quartet in common, and undoubtedly it is far from the first time he has collaborated with the other players onstage last night.

Schubert’s Quintet is nothing short of symphonic, four movements each powerful in their own right, all adding up to a whole greater than the sum of its considerable parts. Perhaps the only quibble of the night was the decision not to take the repeat of the exposition in the first movement; yes, the decision can be made on the basis of sheer length alone, but some of us never can get enough of that otherworldly second theme.

As is often the case with other masterpieces, it is a grandly unfolding slow movement that somehow manages to eclipse a masterpiece of a first movement. The comment was made in this space’s last posting that the Ancora Quartet had made a good decision to give us Schubert “stirred, not shaken” in his earlier quartet, D. 804. But the Rhapsodie Quartet and Karp flipped the formula to powerful results; this was music that ultimately shook one’s soul, and it seems likely that every listener present would have acknowledged a personal tremor or two by the end of this monumental Adagio.

The outer sections of the Scherzo were all unbridled energy, with the surprisingly static central section delivering the neatest trick of all: The players made us feel that we simply did not know what was coming next…and this from someone who has heard the work dozens of times in the last forty or so years.

The finale had a tempo and phrasing that was the very definition of rustic ruggedness; there was a time I would have been quick to condemn the speed as too slow, but the consistency of accents and phrasing soon made the flow inexorable. The only thing that could delay the inevitable conclusion was a broken string on Beia’s instrument; one almost was disappointed that the group didn’t start the movement over instead of picking up where they’d left off.

So the group who is best known for when they are least heard by the “regular” Madison music lovers gave a healthy dose of the medicine that the Rhapsodie Quartet shares every time they play: Molto healing.

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