Among urbane hot-weather New York traditions, nothing beats a trip to MOMA Summergarden on a Sunday evening. The thematic programming that they used to have here has given way to a more eclectic series of acts. Doors open at 6 on the 54th Street side; the music starts at 8 and getting there on time is always a good idea. This Sunday, July 23, the auspicious young Verona Quartet, who got their start at Juilliard just a year ago, play US premieres by a global cast of contemporary composers: Japan’s Teizō Matsumura, Costa Rica;s Alejandro Cardona and Poland’s Elżbieta Sikora. Admission is free.
The quartet’s concert last month at WNYC’s Greene Space was a showcase for their close emotional attunement and versatility. The only questionable choice they made was the sequence of works. On one hand, it makes total sense to open with Shostakovich’s harrowing String Quartet No. 7 and then follow it with Ravel’s String Quartet in F, which is more physically taxing. And maybe the group didn’t want to send the crowd home on a down note – although the Ravel concludes enigmatically. Whatever the case, the program packed a wallop,
The Shostakovich is one of the most heartbreaking pieces of music ever written. It’s a requiem for the composer’s first wife, who left him, then he persuaded her to come back, then she left him again for keeps. As the quartet portrayed her, she was graceful and elegant…and fatally flawed. “If only…:” Is the central theme. Violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violist Abigail Rojansky and cellist Warren Hagerty channeled that with a spare, poignant intensity, from its elegaic, balletesque introduction, through moody circles foreshadowing the danse macabre and eventual, sepulchral defeat that followed – and itself foreshadowed the hunted grimness of the composer’s next quartet.
Their performance of the Ravel was fueled by precise gearshifting between idioms – written on the cusp of late Romanticism and early Modernism, you can hear Cesar Franck’s calm amidst the Parisian bustle, but also Debussy’s Eureka moment when he saw the gamelan for the first ttime. The quartet simmered the balmy lustre in the opening movement, then made a meticulous, surgically precise run through the sharp, emphatic pizzicato of the second movement and the carnivalesquely waltzing variations that followed.
It was on the third movement that they really dug in. Ravel wrote this piece very generously – everybody gets time in the spotlight, and this is where the viola and cello get called on to lead the trail out of a revisitation of the summery first movement as it takes a turn in a far darker direction, and Rojansky and Hagerty both rose to the occasion. Likewise, Hagerty didn’t hold back as he anchored the shivery flurries and uneasy, often aching waltz of the concluding movement. The material this Sunday is completely different, but it’s fair to assume that the quartet will go just as deeply into it.