The Harker Concert Series season came to a close on March 17 with a distinguished string quartet, who ran a master class with orchestra students and then performed to a full house in Nichols Hall auditorium.
The Afiara String Quartet is a Canadian group with impressive résumés: the foursome have degrees from Juilliard, Peabody, New England Conservatory, San Francisco Conservatory and Mannes College among them, and are clearly each highly accomplished musicians. Put them together, and the result is a tightly knit, focused yet relaxed ensemble that interprets music as though it were coming from just one bow.
Beethoven’s “String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95” was the first piece, a work historians place as the last of his “middle” period before he embarked upon the last works he would write, the Late Quartets. In the hands of the Afiara Quartet, this piece was aggressive, passionate and full of extremes, just as one wants Beethoven to be. Violist David Samuel and cellist Adrian Fung had a chance to show off the rich sonorities they coaxed from their instruments in some melodic interplay, and the group bobbed and swayed in perfect physical harmony as they dug into the dramatic piece, executing flawless transitions between tempi and movements.
The quartet’s second piece was a commissioned work by Samuel’s Juilliard buddy Brett Abigaña, a 32-year-old rising star in the classical world. This “String Quartet No. 2” was written in 2010, and seemed perfectly designed to highlight each member of the quartet’s musicianship and virtuosity. The piece appeared built around ostinato figures – accompaniment lines that repeated over and over while others built melodies around them. The first movement, “Psalm,” was hauntingly beautiful, with the dissonant ostinato provided by the two violinists, Valerie Li and Yuri Cho. Two of the movements ended with just a single player fading away into nothingness, leaving the audience spellbound and silent, waiting for the next movements to begin. The piece ended in a flurry of scalar passages, performed absolutely in sync and with clarity and precision that were truly spectacular. This piece was a wonderful mixture of modern atonality and lush melodies, and it was a treat to have such a positive glimpse of classical music’s future.
After an intermission, which included green food in honor of St. Patrick’s Day provided by Harker’s catering team, the group performed a string quartet of Dvořák’s. The Bohemian composer is known for infusing his work with nationalistic folk songs, and it didn’t take much imagination to hear such themes here. Interestingly, it was the first quartet Dvořák composed after returning from a trip to the United States; one wonders how much American influence found its way into this lovely piece. The third distinct genre of the evening, this piece received the same flawless interpretation as the others, showing Afiara’s comfort with various styles.
It is truly a learning experience for students and the community alike to witness such a seamless meeting of the minds amongst members of a small ensemble like the Afiara String Quartet. Kudos to Harker music teachers Chris Florio and Dave Hart, co-directors of the Harker Concert Series, for bringing a professional quartet of such remarkable skill to play in our own house.