The Parker Quartet: Love Letters across the Centuries

Program features works by Adolphus Hailstork, György Kurtág, Alban Berg and Schumann. 

By Izzy Fincher Nov. 22 at 9:15 a.m.

Alan Berg’s Lyric Suite from 1926 has been called “a latent opera.” The sweeping, programmatic, six-movement work, mostly built on a 12-tone row, certainly feels like one. 

Through hidden musical devices and quotations, Berg depicts his passionate, yet doomed love affair with a married woman, Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. He even uses numerology to turn his and Hanna’s initials a motif of paired notes, A-Bb and B-F for H.B. and H.F. It’s the ultimate musical love letter. 

This suite was the centerpiece of the Parker Quartet’s performance in Grusin Hall on Sunday (Nov. 21) as the guest artists for CU Presents’ Takács Quartet series. Despite their eclectic program, which ranged from contemporary works by Adolphus Hailstork, György Kurtág (one of the quartet’s early mentors) and Alban Berg to a string quartet by Schumann, the performance felt cohesive, tied together by themes of love and loss across the centuries.  

Parker Quartet (L-R: Jessica Bodner, Daniel Chong, Ken Hamao, Kee-Hyun Kim). Photo by Luke Ratray.

Founded in 2002 at the New England Conservatory, the Parker Quartet has established itself as one of leading string quartets for traditional and contemporary repertoire in the U.S. Their 2011 album, Ligeti: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2, received a Grammy Award for the Best Chamber Music Performance, and they have premiered works by leading contemporary composers, including Jeremy Gill, Augusta Read Thomas and Zosha di Castri. The quartet members are currently artists-in-residence at Harvard University.

The concert opened with the reflective Adagio from Hailstork’s String Quartet No. 1, based on a choral piece written for his Norfolk Unitarian church that is set to a text about being a generous, loving Christian man. Following this, the quartet’s charismatic violinist Daniel Chong introduced the theme of the program: love in its various forms. This would be continued in Kurtág’s Aus der Ferne V (From afar), a brief, mournful work dedicated to his late friend and publisher Alfred Schlee, who rescued many contemporary scores from the Nazis; Berg’s Lyric Suite; and Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3 in A major, a 23rd birthday present for his beloved wife, Clara. 

In the evocative Aus der Ferne V, cellist Kee-Hyun Kim drove the piece forward with ominous pizzicato, reminiscent of a heartbeat, over the sustained lines on the violins and viola that exploded in short dissonant bursts before gradually fading away. 

This three-minute vignette set the scene for the highlight of the program, Berg’s Lyric Suite, which Chong described as “the most expressive string quartet in the canon” in his introduction. In the suite, the Parker Quartet demonstrated their impressive ability to blend, while bringing different instruments out of the texture as needed, creating a dialogue out of the building and developing motifs. Through their expressive use of colors and dynamics, they also captured the contrasting moods Berg experiences as he falls madly in love and later descends into despair. 

In the first movement, marked Allegretto gioviale, the Parker Quartet burst into joyful motion led by Chong’s lively opening gesture. This energy built through the next four movements, which all have expressive names: Andante amoroso, Allegro misterioso—Trio estatico, Adagio appassionato and Presto delirando—Tenebroso. 

In the third movement, the hidden initials motif appears most frequently, amidst the combination of wandering pizzicato and warbly lines that sound more chaotically improvisatory than mysterious, an instability the Parker Quartet communicated very well before building to the agitated trio and the dynamic presto that ends with a climactic flourish. The final movement, Largo desolato, which includes the iconic Tristan motif associated with eternal love, demanded the most musical versatility from the musicians, as moments from earlier happier movements appear briefly before sinking into despair. 

Following this depressing love story, the Parker Quartet shifted to a light-hearted work for the second half, Schumann’s String Quartet No. 3. After an hour of intense contemporary repertoire, this leap back into an earlier era felt a bit strange. Given the crowd’s excited chatter during intermission, however, a familiar work seemed to be a welcome respite after atonal explorations. 

During his career, Schumann only wrote three quartets. They were written together as Op. 41, a birthday present to his wife that was composed in the span of five weeks in 1842. These quartets incorporate elements of Schumann’s influences from Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, and his friend Mendelssohn, while still retaining his own personal, Romantic style and at times expanding it. 

In their animated interpretation of No. 3, the Parker Quartet exhibited their impeccable synchronicity, bow strokes moving as one. With clear, strong downbeats, Kim on cello led this, though perhaps a bit too forcefully in the calmer Adagio molto movement. With the last movement, a showy crowd pleaser marked molto vivace, the quartet ended the performance on an uplifting note, a reminder of the excitement and joy of young love.  

The program will be repeated at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Nov. 22, in Grusin Hall. Tickets are available here.

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