The final concert of The Harker Concert Series’ fifth season, featuring the Afiara Quartet, was a special one. Returning to Nichols Hall auditorium after their first performance in 2012, the Canada-based group of elite players arrived with some special guests and surprises in store for the sizable crowd.
Afiara are an animated group of performers, an asset they employed throughout the flowing peaks and valleys of Anton Webern’s “Langsamer Satz,” moving in time with its contours and varying intensities, their expressiveness evoking Webern’s striking imagery. It proved equally effective as they frolicked through the opening movement of Haydn’s “String Quartet No. 37,” its darting melodies conjuring a bucolic atmosphere. The entire quartet took flight in the brisk final movement, effortlessly navigating the wilderness of complex harmonies.
This concert was part of a four-day residency during which the members of Afiara worked with Harker students, visiting the lower and middle school campuses in addition to preparing the students of the Harker String Quartet for a special sit-in performance. Joined by seniors Helen Wu and Eugene Gil on violin, Matthew Huang on cello and Austin Lai on viola, Afiara and company launched into the first movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Octet in E-Flat Major.” The students’ presence was immediate from the opening notes, the ensemble’s sound full, robust and locked in, especially during the more frenzied sections of the piece.
“We all had a lot of fun,” Wu said during the intermission. “It was one of those performances that was really energizing. I think their abilities definitely bolstered us up and I definitely think we improved as a quartet because of their being here.”
“One thing we immediately realized is that playing with them is so much fun,” Huang added. “We never really had that kind of experience, playing with a professional quartet. And they really did bring out the spirit in the music for us.”
Mendelssohn made another appearance on the evening’s program as Afiara came back from the break, sliding into the delicate harmonies of his “String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor,” which gave way to a significant tonal and rhythmic shift, as violinist Valerie Li picked up and ran with the Adagio’s tortured melody. A more subdued second movement followed as Afiara’s bodily movement slowed to match the mood and pace. The somewhat light-hearted Intermezzo, featuring some of the evening’s most enjoyable playing, was countered by the fury of the Presto movement, performed with both passion and mastery.
The extended standing ovation that followed was rewarded with an encore, an unexpected but fascinating rendition of “The Enemy Guns” by indie folk rockers DeVotchKa. The song, which recalled Romani folk music and Ennio Morricone, was well-suited to the quartet’s talents, in particular the latent whistling skills of violinist Timothy Kantor.