It’s a sad day in Tacoma when a world-class string quartet performs terrific music worth six standing ovations to an audience of 63. That, unfortunately, was the case last Friday night for the opening of the Second City Chamber Series season – a riveting performance of Transylvania-themed music by the Carpe Diem quartet (plus local bassist Chris Burns) in the Annie Wright School Great Hall, only half-full.
With the kind of incredibly unity of thought, emotion and sound that only a top-notch chamber group can attain, the nationally-based Carpe Diem (replacing the previously-booked Odeon) spent the night on the classical end of their indie-rock-classical reputation to whirl their way through a program of Eastern European music. Themed around Transylvania and “Castelul Dracul,” the evening went from the romantic Gypsy virtuosity of Grigoras Dinicu and Vittorio Monti to the Brahmsian Ernö Dohnányi and folk-modernist Zoltán Kodály, right up to the campy Hollywood humor of American composer Jon Deak. From start to finish, the playing was impeccable.
Part of the phenomenally tight sound was the fact that three of the four quartet instruments were made by the same luthier, Kurt Widenhouse. But this quartet goes way beyond their shared bright sound, infusing every moment with drama and single-minded verve.
It’s hard to pick a highlight. Dinicu’s finger-dancing Horas pulsed with energy, pushing the chirpy street melodies forward and making the ricochets, spiccatos and trills in the first violin sparkle. The Dohnányi D-flat major quartet, as earnest as Brahms but with a Hungarian edge, brought a percussive, edgy sound out of the soupy polyphony, featuring attacking cello triplets in the second movement, lusciously played viola tunes in the third, and a quartet voice as unified and heartbreaking as a Russian Orthodox choir.
In Bartók’s “Romanian Folk Dances,” arranged with delicate eerieness by violist Korine Fujiwara, the famous proud melodies shone with spiky pizzazz and phenomenal technique under leader Charles Wetherbee’s fingers. Kodály’s quartet op.10 no. 2, written just ten years later than the Dinicu and Dohnányi and already way further along the modernist spectrum, told a fascinating tale through very even playing, all players passionate and committed to the intricately woven folk melodies and their dissonant harmonies. The second movement in particular showcased a powerful cello, ringing viola and throaty first violin, a fairytale web of a magical place and time.
But it was Jon Deak’s “Lucy and the Count” that was the highlight. Written in 1981 by the American bassist and composer, the work shows Deak’s enormous talent for weaving chamber music with off-beat narrative, cinematic sound effects and almost-campy theatricality. Swinging between the hilarious and the deadly (no pun intended) serious, “Lucy” follows the Victorian tale of Count Dracula’s arrival at Whitby, England, in a ship full of dead sailors, only to lure the innocent Lucy to her doom. The mock-Gothic score (furious fandangos, seductive melodies, upright tea-party schmaltz and a stormy ocean 3/4) was interspersed brilliantly with scraped bows imitating winds, sails, ship creaks and coffin lids. The “conversation” (untuned notes played with vocal cadences) imitated the characters’ voices with believable charm.
Tacoma bassist Chris Burns, as Dracula, leapt around the fingerboard with skill and accuracy, playing to the hilt the deep, ominous but slightly self-deprecating voice of the Count. SCCS director Svend Rønning narrated with a Gothic relish, and the whole thing descended to a suitably sepulchral ending.
Vittorio Monti’s famous Csardas finished the program with a virtuosic flourish from both violin and viola.
Second Series consistently programs fascinating music played by the best of local and national musicians. It’s a pity more Tacomans don’t realize this.
The next SCCS concert features pianist William Doppman at 4 p.m. Nov. 13 at First Lutheran Church, 6th Avenue and I Street, Tacoma. 253-572-TUNE, www.scchamberseries.org