A gusty, unexpectedly chilly February night in a boomy, barewalled basement-level public space hardly makes for optimum conditions for an up-and-coming string quartet to debut their new collaboration with a similarly irrepressible, cutting-edge concert harpist. But Bridget Kibbey and the Amphion String Quartet – violinists Katie Hyun and David Southorn, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica – defied the elements and made a strong impression Tuesday night, notwithstanding the gusts of wind, ganja smoke and a hi-tech coffeemaker working hard in the background during quieter moments. Kibbey took it all in stride, no surprise considering that she made her way up with shows in rock clubs and loft spaces, and the quartet were just as game. Watching them pull everything together made the prospect of seeing them in more comfortable surroundings all the more enticing.
Hyun wore knitted armwarmers for the first number, Bach’s Harpsichord Concerto in F Minor, BWV 1036. She took them off afterward – playing first-chair violin, you work up a sweat even if it’s cold. Meanwhile, Kibbey negotiated the composer’s rapidfire runs with a harpsichord’s precise, even articulation, hardly an easy task. The group followed by nimbly negotiating Debussy’s Danses Sacree et Profane with a dynamic performance from stately gamelan-inspired phrasing to more kinetic, traditionally western ballet territory.
For whatever reason, the one piece that seemed the hardest to tackle under the circumstances was its least challenging one, Haydn’s String Quartet, Op. 77, No. 1. As Hyun told the crowd, she was happy it “made the cut” for the program, maybe just under the wire, because the group had to battle their way into the graceful opening movement before coming together with an energetically friendly chemistry as the piece rose and fell, spiced with bits of humor and drollery in the same vein as early Beethoven. As Hyun explained, this made sense considering that the quartet was published just a year after Beethoven’s first, a point where there was about to be a changing of the guard…but Haydn wasn’t going to let it happen, at least not yet.
It would seem that the stoners in the house, or outside of the house would have been most entranced by the circling riffage of the Bach or the elegant maze of counterpoint in the Haydn, but instead it was the murderously acidic danse macabre of Andre Caplet’s Conte Fantastique that got them huffing and puffing. The piece follows the narrative of Edgar Allen Poe’s Mask of the Red Death, a cruelly populist parable that in the age of ebola scares seems especially relevant. Southorn took over first violin part as the group lept and bounded while Death skulked in the background and then tiptoed in over the castle walls. After the bloodbath subsided, the ensemble took it out on an aptly sepulchral note.
This concert was staged by the Concert Artists Guild, whose raison d’etre is to springboard the careers of up-and-coming artists. One especially enticing upcoming CAG-sponsored bill is at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on March 22 at 7:30 PM, where trumpeter Brandon Ridenour, pianist Rachel Kudo and the ensemble Useful Chamber perform works by Gershwin, Ravel, Debussy, Paganini, Bartok, Saint-Saens and Vivaldi.