Whether it's in the world of theatre, dance, opera, orchestra or chamber music, arts organizations share an unusual measuring stick with which to gauge the success of their programs.
If they have gained the loyalty of their audience through superior presentations of the "classics," they have then earned the opportunity to push the envelope and perform lesser known and more challenging repertoire. There's always the risk that their fans will not appreciate the change.
With its final subscription concert Saturday night in Pueblo, the Veronika String Quartet took their audience on a seldom traveled musical journey that ended in a universe of black and grey. Thanks to superior musicianship and intense concentration this proved to be a powerful and appealing experience.
The evening began with the shortest of all of the heralded 15 string quartets by the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich. Completed in 1960, the "8th Quartet" is hardly the stuff of musical revolution but does present a challenge to performers and listeners. The dynamic level of the first two movements rarely rises above the hushed tones of mezzo piano. The Veronikas beautifully captured the sparse quality of the music while producing a sound that suggested the sensation of suffused light. This helped to make the final movement's explosion of sound and emotion all the more shocking.
The rarely performed String Quartet No. 2 by the Hungarian Ernst von Dohnanyi from 1906 is a direct descendant of the musical ideas of Johannes Brahms. It is a carefully crafted work that in the hands of the Veronikas came off as a beautifully polished gem with all its facets glittering. No great meaning here, just entertaining and sumptuous sounds that were in stark contrast to the musical experimentation burgeoning during the time of its composition. Standout moments of this performance included cellist Scott Kluksdahl's focused rhythmic underpinning that set the tone in the scherzo-like middle movement and first violinist Veronika Afanassieva's wild ride in the finale, which included a wailing gypsy-like sound contrasted by moments of supreme tenderness.
Guest pianist Zahari Metchkov spent a few minutes discussing the "Piano Quintet" by Alfred Schnittke written between 1972 and 1976. It was composed in reaction to the sudden death of his mother. But there were no words to prepare us for this agonizing journey. Schnittke usedthe lucid sound of the piano to portray rational thought while the four strings bent and distort the traditional sounds of music toward a ghostly presence. As intended, the effect was horrifying.
Oddly, the best measure of the success of this performance did not generate from the dark sounds coming from the quintet. It was the silence that the Russian had composed into the music. It could only have been this potent if the performed notes were expressed as they were - by the most intense possible concentration.
Finally, after almost a half an hour of bleak sounds, the strings achieved a beautiful major chord which suggested that an inner peace had been found. Over this, Metchkov repeated a sparse but beautiful musical figure that suggested the shimmering stars of night. The piece ended, but the audience did not break into applause for another 30 seconds.
It is only through live performance that music such as this can be truly experienced.