The Rolston String Quartet. Toronto Summer Music Festival. Walter Hall. July 24
It took but a few measures of music at Walter Hall on Monday night for the Rolston String Quartet to justify their first-prize win at last year’s Banff International String Quartet Competition all over again. The Toronto Summer Music Festival audience was treated—in every sense of the word—to three pieces from their competition-winning repertoire, which they have honed and burnished over nine months of international touring.
Canada, and Ontario in particular, has reason to be proud in the considerable talents of violinists Luri Lee and Jeffrey Dyrda, violist Hezekiah Leung and cellist Jonathan Lo—three of them alumni of Toronto’s Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Although they are so young, and still starting out on what should be great careers, they performed with a maturity and cohesion rivaling the best string quartets in the world.
The Rolstons began with Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, a turn-of-the-20th-century gem that puts a premium on infinitely small gestures being rendered just so. The performance we heard on Monday night was exquisite, filled with luminosity and pulsing with life. Here the foursome showed off their subtle side, as well as unerring unity of purpose. The music was at once sensual and muscular, elegant and purposeful. Just this one interpretation was worth the price of admission.
The evening closed with Ludwig van Beethoven’s Op. 59 String Quartet in E minor, the second of the three Razumovsky quartets, filled with virtuosic turns interspersed with emotional eruptions. The Rolstons served up a highly articulated rendering carefully shaped and paced to come off as spontaneous. This is no mean feat. Here, as in all the music they performed, the balance between the instruments was impeccable, as one string player handed off a line of music to the next. The tempi in the two last movements felt a bit deliberate, but the result fit the Rolstons’ aesthetic of wanting to clearly convey every theme and rhythmic texture.
The programme also included the first string quartet written by young Canadian composer Zosha Di Castri, commissioned as the mandatory new work for the 2016 Banff International String Quartet Competition. They didn’t choose to travel their worldwide Banff victory recital tour with this piece because they won the prize for best interpretation, so we have to assume that they haven’t found a piece of new music they like better. That’s too bad, because I think Di Castri’s is the sort of piece that gave new music a bad reputation in the late 20th century: It is an exercise in technical virtuosity for the players (not a bad thing in and of itself), intellectual sound design by the composer (again, not something to be shunned), and agony for anyone who isn’t willing to hand over listening pleasure to an analysis of abstract forms.
To be fair to the three criteria, the Rolstons are spectacularly gifted musicians who dispatched Di Castri’s squeaks, squawks, groans, pluckings and shrieks with grace. The String Quartet No. 1 is a tight construct, packing several cycles of building tension, explosion and placid release into a concise 10 minutes; Di Castri is nothing if not tidy. But it would have been much more pleasant to have the technical demands—for each individual player as well as in their ensemble work—and neatly sculpted form be cloaked in music that does not merely show off its creator’s and interpreters’ technical prowess.
It sometimes doesn’t help to have printed programme notes from the composer. The words supplied by Di Castri rank among the most inane I have read, causing me to re-confront a pet dislike of artists’ statements redolent of self-absorption, both personal and regarding the world to which they are addressing their words. Here is her first paragraph:
“If I were a writer or a painter, I would express myself in words or images. But seeing as I am neither, I trust that music on its own has the potential to resound in meaningful ways. String Quartet No. 1 is both purely abstract and sonically concrete. It does not aim to represent a story nor evoke a pre-determined external source of inspiration, yet because the compositional process stems from close (some might say microscopic) interactions with actual sound files and improvisations in a digital workstation, the music is in fact grounded in an audible reality.”
A satirist of academic musical inbreeding could not come up with better nonsense if they tried. Thank goodness the work itself is a sturdy piece of sound sculpture, and the Rolstons made an excellent show of presenting it to us.
I, for one, can’t wait to hear them perform live in Toronto again.
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