It's a pity chamber music has a rap for being egghead entertainment, even among people who like classical music. Say the words "string quartet" and the image that comes up is of four guys in penguin suits sawing away in front of a audience of tweedy graybeards on the verge of narcolepsy.
So it was refreshing to be reminded earlier this month how little that image reflects reality. The Maia Quartet opened Baltimore's annual "Music in the Great Hall" series at Towson Unitarian Universalist Church, and the series, now in its 22nd year, again proved to be one of the underappreciated gems of the local cultural scene -- great music at peanuts prices ($12) in a hall that lets you see and hear the performers up close and personal, just as the composer intended.
The Maia Quartet, formed in 1990, is currently the graduate string quartet-in-residence at the Juilliard School in New York. It's a multicultural ensemble of young Peabody graduates on fellowships as teaching assistants to the famed Juilliard String Quartet. They brought a sparkling musical intelligence and youthful enthusiasm to their performances of Mozart, Janacek and Schumann.
The music business today is dominated by big stars playing big numbers in big halls for big audiences who pay big money for tickets. So often, everything about a concert is outsized except the quality of the music being made. And while truly bad performances are relatively rare, mediocre ones abound to the point where it's almost a shock to come upon players who engage the emotions as strongly as the intellect.
Yet despite chamber music's bad rap, some of the greatest composers confided their most profound thoughts to the form. The late quartets of Mozart and Beethoven, the quintets of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms, and the quartets of such modern masters as Debussy, Ravel, Smetana, Bartok and Shostakovich are intensely personal statements that express their creator's private spiritual journeys as well as some of their most sophisticated musical ideas.
Visual, musical delights
It's one thing to hear these masterpieces on record, quite another to witness their coming into being through the physical exertions of live performers on stage. After all, a recording can capture only a fraction of the sensory information conveyed by a musical performance. Yet the amazing prestidigitation of a Scarlatti sonata offers visual as well as musical delights. An "egghead" string quartet is similarly enriched simply by the act of watching it being performed.
That's what draws true music lovers to such venues as the "Music in the Great Hall" series. Its small-scale setting permits a kind of intimacy between performer and audience, which reminds us that music is not just "sound" but a complex social interaction through which the subtlest shades of meaning are conveyed on many levels at once.
The Maia Quartet's performance of Janacek's "Quartet No. 1" was a good example. The work is subtitled "The Kreutzer Sonata," a reference to both the famous Beethoven sonata for violin and piano of the same name and the title of Tolstoy's equally famous short story of love and betrayal.
Tragic love affair
There's actually a fascinating bit of musico-historical lore connected with the piece. Beethoven's sonata is one of those passionate outpourings that foreshadowed the Romantic era in music. The sonata figures in Tolstoy's short story as the motive for a tragic love affair between a frustrated and bored young housewife who plays the piano and a --ing young violinist who happens upon the scene.
Naturally the two fall in love. The scene was made famous a few seasons back in an advertising photo that showed the young tTC couple passionately embracing beside her piano. He holds his violin in one hand, the other is about her waist, and their sheet music is scattered about the floor.
When the jealous husband discovers his wife's infidelity, however, he exacts a bloody revenge. Janacek's quartet is a musical evocation of Tolstoy's dark morality tale.
The composer was in his 60s when he wrote this quartet, and, perhaps not coincidentally, was embroiled at the time in an ardent, hopeless infatuation with a married woman 30 years his junior. The quartet offers a window on his inner life. Its shocking dissonances and unconventional harmonies can sound incomprehensible on records. But it is readily grasped for what it is in live performance -- a brutally realistic portrayal of violent passion and moral transgression.
The Maia Quartet's reading of this technically and emotionally demanding work was near flawless, and afterward the musicians were visibly drained by their exertions. Yet that was actually part of what made the evening so rewarding. There was no question these players were totally involved, and the audience couldn't help but respond to their commitment.
That is what any performance worth the price of a ticket ought to do. There is such an abundance of opportunities to hear terrific chamber performances in Baltimore every year. Everyone ought to sample at least a couple. You may have to hunt around a bit to find them -- many groups don't have large advertising budgets. Be adventurous, though. Gems like the "Music in the Great Hall" series are simply too good to miss.