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Port Townsend Music Festival 2008: Schubert, Auerbach, and Brahms Tokyo String Quartet; Attacca String Quartet; Helen Callus, viola; Joseph F. Wheeler Theater, Port Townsend, WA, 27.6.2008 (BJ)

The Port Townsend Chamber Music Festival may be smaller in scope than other similar organizations in the Seattle area, but to judge from this concert its artistic standards are as high as any. The concept of this week of activities was particularly promising: after several days of master classes led by established instrumentalists, the Tokyo String Quartet, an ensemble of undoubted international stature, and the much younger Attacca String Quartet shared responsibility for two concerts given in the charming Joseph F. Wheeler Theater in Fort Worden State Park. At the Friday concert, the 280-seat hall was full, the acoustics seemed excellent, and the performances were splendid.

First on stage was the Tokyo String Quartet, which at this point in its distinguished career is only half Japanese, second violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Kazuhide Isomura being flanked by Martin Beaver in the first-violin chair and Clive Greensmith as cellist. The latter two more recent members of the ensemble have clearly integrated themselves thoroughly into the artistic atmosphere of the group, and technical standards were impeccable both in Schubert’s A-minor Quartet and in Primera Luz, a work written for the quartet by Lera Auerbach. Born in Russia in 1973 and now apparently resident in the United States, this is a composer with something individual to say, and she said it compellingly in the course of her finely crafted quartet. Mostly slow in tempo, its six movements draw subtly colored sonorities from the instruments without ever forcing them to do anything unnatural, and the Tokyo players realized the music with unmistakable conviction and eloquence.

Not perhaps surprisingly, since it was founded nearly 40 years ago, the Tokyo occupies a relatively old-fashioned position in the interpretative spectrum. Its general disinclination to observe exposition repeats was exemplified in the first movement of the Schubert work. The effect of this hypnotic movement was somewhat diminished by the omission, which I find hard to accept in these days when most quartets treat composers’ instructions in such matters with more respect. Nevertheless, the performance as a whole was deeply impressive, illuminated as it was by many touches of poetry, lyricism, and drama.

After intermission, the Attacca String Quartet–violinists Amy Schroeder and Keiko Tokunaga, violist Gillian Gallagher, and cellist Andrew Yee–was joined by Helen Callus, the violist who is also artistic director of the festival, and by the Tokyo’s cellist, Clive Greensmith, in Brahms’s Sextet No. 2 in G major, Op. 36. This is sublime music, and the performance indeed measured up to that emphatic adjective. Unlike their senior colleagues (and presumably with the approval of Mr. Greensmith), they duly repeated the first-movement exposition. This sumptuous Allegro non troppo–with its leisurely tonal oscillations, just about the only movement in Brahms that sounds anything like Bruckner–gained enormously from being heard complete. And the three movements that followed were played with no less expressive warmth and artistic insight.

The Attacca strikes me as very much a young quartet to look out for. Its four members are well matched in style and technique, and they all play with a most attractive spontaneity and evident enjoyment. At the risk of making a complete fool of myself (for there are too many variables attaching to such questions to allow of certainty), I would however hazard the guess that violist Gillian Gallagher could profit greatly from the acquisition of a better instrument. In every other regard she showed herself to be just as fine a player as the other three, but there was a touch less opulence about her sound. Is there an interested potential benefactor out there who could spare a good viola for the cause? But do not mistake me: my criticism is the merest trifle in the context of a marvelous piece of music-making, in which the partnership of four eager youngsters and two long-established colleagues made for enchanted listening.

Bernard Jacobson

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