String ensemble is taking requests; Masterpieces: The Alexander String Quartet's "audience participation Beethoven," in which listeners choose the compositions to be played, works well for this virtuoso group.


This much is clear: Under the auspices of the Candlelight Concert Society, the Alexander String Quartet will play three Beethoven quartets Saturday night at Howard Community College's Smith Theatre.

But which of Beethoven's 16 masterpieces in that genre will they perform? The smiling, high-spirited Opus 18, No. 2 from Beethoven's earliest batch of quartets? Or will it be the grandly emotional Opus 59, No. 1, one of three quartets dedicated to Count Andreas Rasumovsky, Russia's ambassador in Vienna who was one of Beethoven's most generous patrons? Or might it be the visionary Opus 130 with its otherworldly "Cavatina" movement that mixes ineffable beauty with profound sadness as affectingly as anything Beethoven ever wrote?

The answer may depend on those in attendance, for when the Alexander String Quartet plays Beethoven, they allow their listeners to vote on what they'd like to hear.

Listeners are urged to attend a free pre-concert lecture at 6: 30 p.m. at Smith Theatre. Violinists Ge-Fang Yang and Frederick Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson will solicit advice on which quartets to play at their 8 p.m. concert.

This is the second touring season of "audience participation Beethoven" for the Alexander String Quartet, and it's become quite a popular phenomenon, says Corrie Graves, a Burlington, Vt., agent who assists the players with their programming.

"They tend to attract very knowledgeable audiences," she says, "and there's often spirited voting among listeners who have their favorites. It's exciting.

"Sometimes you even get people holding up signs that say 'Opus 135!' They have their opinions and really want to participate," Graves said.

Unusual musical activities are nothing new for this ensemble, which has been impressing chamber music aficionados since its inception in 1981. The Alexander quartet was the first quartet to win the Concert Artists Guild International Award and became the first American group to win the London International String Quartet Competition in 1986.

The San Francisco-based group has recorded extensively, but it is its integral set of the Beethoven quartets on the remarkably inexpensive Arte Nova label that has really made the critics take notice.

Listening to their accounts of Opus 59, No. 1, the first "Rasumovsky," and Opus 74, "The Harp," on Arte Nova 59224 shows why.

These are bustling, high-energy readings of sufficient artistic sensitivity to hold their own with most of the big quartet names in the catalog. Yes, you'll find more overall elegance from the Quartetto Italiano and more breadth of line from, say, the Tokyo. But for first-class Beethoven caught in excellent sound, the Alexander quartet is definitely worth hearing.

Nearly two centuries after they were composed, Beethoven's quartets are considered the best of the string chamber repertoire. Indeed, they read like a microcosm of the great composer's musical life. The quartets start in the 1790s with the influences of Haydn and Mozart and continue into his final years as he was going deaf, when he composed five quartets that still have us shaking our heads nearly 200 years later.

In short, my fellow Americans, this election is rigged. You can't lose. Whichever quartets you vote for, your soul is in for the musical ride of the season.

Tickets: 410-715-0034 or 301-596-6203.

Pub Date: 1/21/99

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