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Going out with style: Tokyo String Quartet bids a fond farewell to Chicago

This past Tuesday, the Tokyo String Quartet played what first violin Martin Beaver said would almost certainly be their last concert at the Ravinia Festival.  In all likelihood, it will also be their final appearance anywhere in the Chicago area.  With Kazuhide Isomura (founding viola)  and Kikuei Ikeda (longtime second violin) deciding to retire, the whole ensemble is calling it quits after the 2012/2013 season.  It was “an evening full of meaning for us,” according to Mr. Beaver.

That I was there to experience it was a confluence of lucky events.  A week before, I didn’t know I’d be in Chicago.  The day before, I wasn’t sure if I’d be attending.  That morning, a massive thunderstorm rolled through the region, complete with hail and some not-messin’-around wind causing widespread damage and some power outages.

Around lunch time, the rain stopped, but I got a weather alert on my phone warning of “Severe Heat” with temperatures between 100 and 104 degrees with a heat index of up to 110 degrees once you factored in the humidity;  however, this turned out to be a warning for Wednesday, not the night of the concert  By the time I arrived at Ravinia around 6:30pm, the skies had cleared and the temperature was a very SoCal-like mid-70’s with moderate humidity.  Nothing would get in the way of the chance to see this concert.

Lucky me — and very lucky, too, for the near-capacity crowd inside Martin Theatre and the many others picnicking outside.  The Tokyo Quartet treated everyone to an evening that was enjoyable on so many levels.

The first half showed off their graceful and probing musicality across a diverse spectrum of works.  They played “The Rider” quartet of Haydn with subtlety and ease, making it sound fresh and making the strongest impression in the more tender moments.  They followed up with two contrasting works by Anton Webern.

  • The Langsamer Satz (“Slow Movement”) was written in 1905 while he was wrapping up his doctoral studies at the University of Vienna, though it didn’t actually receive its premiere until 1962 (in Seattle, of all places).  It is brooding and unabashedly romantic — not what typically comes to mind when one thinks of Webern’s music. The foursome dug into it, playing with big vibrato throughout.
  • The iconic Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 are different things entirely.  This is the Webern most people know and love/respect/despise.  While not quite as compact and crystalline as works written just a few years later (the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 10, for example), they are still rigorously structural and present a whole array of challenges.  The Tokyo Quartet was more than up to the task.  Whereas their sound in the two previous works was warm, even dark, here they played with a brighter tone to match the otherworldly sounds Webern asks the musicians to make.  They were focused without being clinical, and gave a strong sense of line within each movement and across the work’s entirety.  It was a strongly compelling performance.

A thread of melancholy wove its way through the entire first half, even the sunnier parts of the Haydn.  Perhaps the thought of this performance being their last in Ravinia weighed on their minds.  After intermission, the mood seemed to shift, and the third of Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” quartets — the C major — had a valedictory sensibility to it.

This was a full-throated performance, played with energy, flexibility, and subtle nuances without ever becoming distorted or wild.  The seams rarely, if ever, showed.  An earlier incarnation of the Tokyo Quartet made fine recordings of all Beethoven string quartets, including the C-major “Razumovsky;” it is almost restrained by comparison to how they played it this night.

The attentive audience responded warmly, and after three curtain calls, the musicians sat down to play the Finale of Haydn’s D major quartet, Op. 20, No. 4.  It was fleet and playful and triumphant, and I can’t think of a more appropriate final memory to leave the fans in attendance.

Tokyo String Quartet:  July 24, 2012; Martin Theatre, Ravinia Festval (Highland Park, IL)
Martin Beaver, violin
Kikuei Ikeda, violin
Kazuhide Isomura, viola
Clive Greensmith, cello

Haydn: Quartet in G Minor, Op. 74, No. 3, Hob. III:74 (“The Rider”)
Webern: Langsamer Satz (“Slow Movement”)
Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5
Beethoven: Quartet in C Major, Op. 59, No. 3 (“Razumovsky”)

Photo credits:

  • Tokyo String Quartet:  Marco Borggreve
  • Martin Theatre:  courtesy of Ravinia Festival

3 thoughts on “Going out with style: Tokyo String Quartet bids a fond farewell to Chicago

  1. Wow. I’m old enough to remember when they were the hot young quartet.

    They are bidding farewell – I presume – to Santa Fe in about three weeks with a performance of the Schubert Quintet.


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