The Parker Quartet from Harvard will perform Sunday and Monday at CU

They will play in Grusin Hall as guests of CU’s Takacs Quartet

By Peter Alexander Nov. 17 at 5:20 p.m.

The Parker Quartet may be the only string quartet named for a hotel.

Formed when the original members were students at the New England Conservatory, they wanted a name that reflected their connection to Boston. “None of us is from Boston, but we call Boston home,” says Ken Hamao, the quartet’s second violinist. “To have a landmark from the city to name ourselves after was appropriate.”

Parker Quartet. Photo by Luke Ratray

Today the Parker Quartet members maintain their ties to Boston, as Blodgett Artists-in-residence and faculty at Harvard University’s department of music. 

The landmark is the Parker House, which you may recognize from dinner rolls but which was an important gathering place for America’s literary figures in the 19th century, including Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau, and later for politicians including presidents U.S. Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton.

The Parker Quartet will perform at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21, and 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 22, in Grusin Hall. They are appearing in the guest slot on the fall concert series of CU’s Takacs Quartet. Their eclectic program features the Lyric Suite by Alban Berg and the Third String Quartet of Robert Schumann, as well as shorter works by Adolphus Hailstork and György Kurtág.

Both in-person and digital tickets can be purchased from CU Presents. Masks are required in all indoor spaces in the CU campus, regardless of vaccination status.

Alban Berg

The central work on the program is Berg’s Lyric Suite, an emotionally and musically challenging work in six intense movements. It has always been seen as a dramatic and passionate piece of music, but more than 50 years after it was written in 1926, a secret “program” was found embedded in the score that explained the intensity of the music.

A combination of musical initials standing for the composer and his lover, multiple other musical symbols, the inclusion of Wagner’s Tristan chord and other musical references, all reflect Berg’s passionate and illicit affair with a married woman, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. Even the movement titles suggest the subject: amoroso (lovingly), appassionato (passionately) and estatico (ecstatic).

But you don’t need to know the story to appreciate the music, Hamao says. “For us as performers, it helps us to get into the composer’s mindset, but on its own it’s just a very dynamic work, hugely expressive,” he says.

“We’ve been talking about performing it for many years, and after so many years you want to tell each other, ‘Let’s just go for it’. It’s really exciting (because) it has that drama, the very, very highs and the very, very lows of the affair. It did make sense (with) the Schumann as a companion piece. The Lyric Suite is as passionate as it also is desolate, while the Schumann is more uplifting.”

Calra Schumann. Portrait by Franz von Lenbach

Hamao describes the Schumann Third Quartet as representing a different kind of romantic love, that of the composer for his wife, Clara Schumann. “It’s just a love letter to his wife,” he says. “From the very first two notes that you hear, this Clara motive, he’s yearning for his wife. From the first page it’s a declaration of love.”

Hailstork’s Adagio is a piece that the quartet discovered more recently. “It was a piece that we fell in love with immediately and wanted to program it as soon as we can,” Hamao says. “In a program that can be as intense as the Lyric Suite can be, having this beautiful Adagio made a lot of sense to us.

“I think of it as an incredibly beautiful piece that kind of discovers itself throughout the whole piece. It’s definitely tonal but has what you might call notes that don’t quite belong to the scale. For a beautiful piece there’s a lot of surprises, but at the end of the day it’s a really gorgeous movement.”

Kurtág’s Aus der Ferne (From the distance) V is one of a group of pieces for different media. Two of are for string quartet—Aus der Ferne III and V. The Parker Quartet has worked directly with the composer in the past, and recently released a CD recording of his quartets, including those two miniatures. 

“Kurtág has an incredible ability to tap into the idea of drama,” Hamao says. “There is a sense of narrative. I don’t think there is an explicit one, but an abstract narrative. He’s able to pack a story into two minutes of music. [He has] this incredible ability to create a lot of expression through quite minimal means.”

Whatever narrative you discover will have to be “in each listener’s imagination,” Hamao says, but that is part of the reward for both performer and listener.

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Parker Quartet

  • Adolphus Hailstork: Adagio from String Quartet No. 1
  • György Kurtág: Aus der Ferne V (From the distance)
  • Alban Berg: Lyric Suite
  • Schumann: String Quartet No. 3, Op. 41 No. 3

4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 21
7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 22
Grusin Recital Hall, CU Imig Music Building

In-person and Sunday live stream tickets available from CU Presents

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