Playtime with the Doric String Quartet

By Ben Beese

As I sit down to write this, I ask myself, “why bother?” It is common and far too accurate to joke about the absence of young people in concert halls. Such jokes were made to me at least twice in reference to last weekend’s concert by the Doric String Quartet and Jonathan Biss. Of course, the stereotype is not entirely true — there are a few young people who still enjoy hearing, as composer Felix Mendelsohn put it, “songs without words.” Yet the question remains  —  why do some of us enjoy what so many others on this campus do not?

I’d like to bring up a theory which I believe is refuted by last weekend’s concert: so-called “classical” music lacks the vivacity to engage younger audiences. Regardless of the fact that the pieces played on Sunday — quartets by Beethoven and Béla Bartók, and a quintet by Edward Elgar — would be more accurately classified in the Romantic and Modernist periods, I can certainly understand why one would believe this proposed theory. The audience at last Saturday’s concert was, at times, verging on catatonic. The only head-bopping to be found in the audience may have been my own. After the concert, I walked past a number of thumping, sweaty dorm parties. The juxtaposition between these two ways of listening to music was not lost on me. Popular music, by any definition, is made for dancing.

It’s a shame that the bourgeois history of “classical” music in the last two hundred years has led to such stoic practices. The music performed last Saturday was every bit as physical as the music played through dorm speakers. Biss and the Doric String Quartet are well aware of this fact. Leaning together, swinging apart and swaying side-to-side, the quartet embodied the music’s swells and drops. The right foot of violinist Alex Reddington never seemed to stop tapping. At moments, I half-expected the group to leap out of their seats and perform a jig. 

These musicians were, in a very literal sense, a sight to be seen. Many of them forwent the traditional black suit for those of striking blue. Reddington even sported a pair of brightly colored, striped socks, which nicely highlighted his active feet. The musicians’ outfits brought a touch of levity, as if to say, “We’re here to have fun.” 

Dismissing the pretentiousness that has built up around “classical” music, the performers seemed more like children at play than bastions of European high culture. They seemed to play for the love of the activity itself. As a piece hurtled to its finale, bows were flourished like raised rapiers above the performers’ heads. One could imagine them in some melodrama on an Italian piazza, perhaps costumed as Mercutio or Tybalt. 

Theatricality is no trivial element when it comes to music. Good music deserves to be fully embodied. It is no coincidence that, in English, music is played just the same as a theatrical play. All of these activities share the adoration of life found in child’s play. That adoration is communal. We feel the highs, the lows and the middling stretches together. Music has an inherent togetherness.

Even if the quartet hadn’t introduced pianist Biss as “our really dear friend,” the comradery between all five musicians would have been obvious. They passed themes and motifs one to the other with as much playfulness as technical skill. The folk-dance-inspired second part of Bartók’s Third String Quartet was announced with a sudden plop which violist Hélène Clément sent deftly to violinist Ying Xue. Xue held the note’s tension through a gorgeous passage of pizzicato, or plucked, folk themes. This is music that rewards close cooperation. The Doric String Quartet and Jonathan Biss played excellently together.

To the skeptical listeners who are still reading: “classical” music is no less lively, emotional or personal than anything else on Spotify. Sure, it can be esoteric and sometimes just bizarre, but there are outliers in any genre. If you’re still unconvinced, I encourage you to give the next Performing Arts Series concert a try. My meagre 700 words can’t convey the joy and aura of a concert, but I can assure you, there is a particular joy reserved for the musical. That joy is, at its essence, the same you’ll find in a packed Friday-night dorm party or a Wednesday-night open mic.