Jupiter Quartet Leaves Listeners Starry-Eyed

By BEN BEESE

When I was young, my parents took me to a dinner concert at our church. I remember my father telling me that he found musical moments like this particularly good for thinking. I sat myself down, back to the musicians, prepared for a relaxing, pensive evening, at which point I was promptly told that it was rude to sit with your back to the music and that I should listen. As a child, I found this a strange contradiction. Now, I understand.

Claude Debussy, the French composer perhaps most famous for his piece “Clair de Lune,” died in 1918. To mark the 100th year since his passing, the Jupiter Quartet came to the MCA last Friday to remind us why we love art and the impressionists in particular. 

The program kicked off with a confident theme from Maurice Ravel, admirer of Debussy and an influential French composer in his own right. Although it is typical for the main piece, in this case Debussy’s “Quartet in G Minor,” to be proceeded by complimentary pieces, the inclusion of Ravel’s only string quartet before Debussy’s quartet was duly appropriate. As would be seen later in the evening, Ravel’s piece is highly derivative of Debussy’s. From the wonderful pizzicato with which the scherzo begins to the swooning central themes, Ravel’s homage was well received by the earlier artist. 

Perhaps of most interest that night were the themes. I use the term “swooning” to convey the emotional pregnancy, the swaying, the general accord with which the music lays in the world and yet it was unromantic. Tension, melancholy, peace, joy and sadness were all woven together in a way which reminds one of life in all of its muddled facets. 

The music of the night, which included Ravel, Debussy and “Ainsi la Nuit,” by Henri Dutilleux, embodied this very impressionistic idea. The music was not nice, per se. It lacked the simple prettiness of some music and yet it was not unpleasant either. The impressionists pioneered new musical strategies, new harmonies (and assonances). They broke away from classical structures and ideas in order to build complex emotional textures that makes one feel, deeply. 

This leads us to an element of the Jupiter Quartet’s performance that is essential to great music and yet too often overlooked. Music is more than the sounds that are produced. One can play the score perfectly and still fail to produce the appropriate music if the musicians prevent the music from entering their soul. This was not the case Friday night. The members of the quartet were flooded by the music. When the score went soft, they were gentle. When the music became vigorous, the musicians convulsed along with it. The music was felt the way it is meant to be.

I remembered my father’s words at this concert in particular because the music of these impressionists is not only beautiful, not only emotional, but fertile, ready to embrace those thoughts, reflections, loves and worries that life likes to leave with us, particularly in the cold at the end of the semester. Although we are surrounded by recorded music every moment of every day, there is something special about going to a performance where your activities are limited to listening and thinking. The artists represented last Friday, both the performers and the composers, provided a wonderfully pleasing few hours and, more importantly, an ocean upon which to set our minds adrift in the wonders and contradictions of life. It was a sacred moment of life, of beauty, of strings.

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Jupiter Quartet Leaves Listeners Starry-Eyed