In their Carnegie Hall debut last night, the Aizuri Quartet played an exhilarating, “wonderfully quirky” program, as violinist Miho Saegusa grinningly characterized a lively, animatedly conversational performance of Haydn’s String Quartet in B minor, Op. 64, no. 2. And that wasn’t the highlight of the night. The suite of Komitas’ Armenian folk songs, via a colorful Sergei Aslamazian arrangement, were often gorgeously poignant. And Paul Wiancko‘s 2016 triptych Lift, an “ode to joy,” as violist Ayane Kozasa put it, was a thrilling, ceaslessly bustling, distinctly urban choice of coda. Wiancko is a cellist by trade: his work for strings takes maximum advantage of all those instruments can offer.
The theme of the night was “locally sourced” music inspired by the composers’ home turf that also resonated with the group members. Cellist Karen Ouzounian explained that the night’s five dances collected by Komitas – a Near Eastern musical polymath and proto Alan Lomax– were “a musical link for a lot of families in the diaspora to a distant home…a tiny window into Armenia.” Growing up in Toronto, she’d developed a passion for the repertoire, something the group clearly share.
The wistfully waltzing song without words they opened with set the bar almost impossibly high for the rest of the night, lit up with Saegusa’s sparkling pizzicato. They’d revisit that plaintiveness with the third piece, a distantly Viennese-tinged waltz, Kozasa adding aching intensity with a solo toward the end. In between, a kinetic, celebratory number featured forceful call-and-response and a nimble pizzicato bassline from Ouzounian. The acerbic fourth tune, with its uneasy, Iranian-tinged modalities and stormy gusts, morphed into a jauntier waltz that set the stage for a bounciy vamping conclusion.
In the Haydn, violinist Emma Frucht got to indulge in some unusual single-string voicings that the composer had written for a string-playing buddy. The group reveled in the occasional puckish, peek-a-boo moment and coy instants of anticipation: they’d really taken the quartet apart to find all the best jokes. Dynamics were very hushed in the quietest passages, so that when the group really dug into the Romany-inspired minor-key phrases that Haydn would inevitably smooth out, the effect was all the more striking. Deft handoffs of neatly interwoven counterpoint between the instruments became more animated as the music grew more straightforwardly triumphant, to a playful coda.
Wiancko’s triptych had a cinematic restlessness, a hive of activity built around several intriguing thematic variations. The ensemble kicked it off memorably with a shiver of harmonics, quickly hitting a bustle that brought to mind Charles Mingus’ mid-50s work. Seemingly tongue-in-cheek rounds of pizzicato gave way to circular, Philip Glass-ine phrasing and some of the night’s most unselfconsciously lustrous harmonies between the violins. As the piece went on, lively swoops and dives along with a long series of short, colorful solo spots for each of the instruments mingled with hazy atmospherics, Debussy-esque echoes of ragtime and a return to a frenetic cityscape to tie up any possible loose end. What appeared to be a sold-out crowd exploded with a series of standing ovations.
The Aizuri Quartet’s next New York gig is Dec 15 at 11 AM at Subculture, playing a program TBA; cover is $20, which includes coffee and breakfast snacks. Concert Artists Guild, who sponsored this show, also have a characteristically innovative series of performances from future stars of the serious instrumental music world. Their next one is Feb 11, 2020 at 7:30 PM back at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, with pianist Yi-Nuo Wang playing works by Rachmaninoff, Bartok, Brahms, Chen-yi Lee and Liszt; tix are $30.