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Music at Kohl Mansion — Jasper String Quartet

Going to any concert in the ‘Music at Kohl Mansion’ series is quite an event. First of all there’s the venue itself, a rose brick mansion completed in 1914 with money that Frederick Kohl had inherited from his seal-fur-trading and silver-mining father Charles. The Great Hall in the mansion was actually built to show off the singing prowess of his wife Bessie. However, their marriage didn’t last. Bessie left for pastures greener and Frederick committed suicide with the property being inherited by Frederick’s mistress. Incidentally, the movie “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” starring Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks was filmed there in 1921. Eventually the building was taken over by the Sisters of Mercy and the Great Hall became the chapel.

Today during the week the building houses Mercy High School but on certain Sunday evenings it becomes the home of Music at Kohl. There’s a huge fireplace surrounded by carved wooden choirboys and on a raised platform, almost within arm’s length of the audience, the chamber musicians gather. The concert itself is preceded by a master class, open to the public, given by the evening’s performers, in last Sunday’s case case the Jasper string Quartet. They coached the Amara quartet made up of Robert Chien, violin 1, Kathleen Navas, violin 2, Yoonsoo Cha, viola, Rachel Broweleit, cello. They are part of Young Chamber Musicians Young Chamber Musicians, founded and directed by violist Susan Bates which offers chamber music instruction and exciting performance opportunities to advanced string players and pianists ages 14-20. It was exciting to see the interaction between the masters and this group of highly accomplished young musicians ages 14-16.

Next up was an informative and entertaining lecture by resident musicologist Kai Christiansen. Using recorded music examples he introduced the audience to the three works that the Jasper Quartet would perform, encouraging us to unwind the threads in the Mozart, dissect the textures of Brahms and hear the pathos of the ‘Mesto’ in the Bartok.

Then the Jasper Quartet took to the stage, now attired in their formal evening wear. Comprised of J Freivogel, violin and founder, Sae Chonabayashi, violin, Sam Quintal and Rachel Henderson Freivogel the quartet was formed in 2004 when they were all students at the Oberlin Conservatory. They are currently Professional Quartet in Residence at Temple University’s Center for Gifted Young Musicians in Philadelphia. They are highly involved with outreach programs in schools and educational work as well as formal concerts. How much more did I enjoy and understand their performance having heard them in ‘real’ life, witnessing for myself their attention to detail as they dissected each note into its beginning , middle and end with the student quartet. Musicologist Homer Ulrich wrote ‘Chamber music is based upon flawless balance and ensemble, a selfless teamwork’ and during the evening this quartet demonstrated this in a supreme way. Opening with Mozart’s Quartet in D Major, K. 575, composed for the King of Prussia the ensemble captured the delicate rococo character of this work. The King played the cello and this instrument often leads the way through the exuberant lines.

Bartok’s set of 6 string quartets is one of the crowning achievements of twentieth century chamber music. In them he creates his own language, a bland of atonality and traditional tonality. His use of 4 instruments which have essentially the same timbre led him to experiment with new sounds so that the piece has an almost orchestral flavor. Even the form of the piece, though at first appearing to be a traditional four movement plan, is imbued with Bartok’s creativity. Each movement begins with a slow section, marked ‘mesto’ which is prolonged with each movement until in the final movement it takes over and becomes the entire movement. Composed in 1939 Bartok’s life was in turmoil as he fled to safety in the United States from his native Hungary where fascism was becoming rife. As he wrote the quartet his mother was dying and this sadness coupled with the political cynicism combine in a strange restless piece which never settles. This agitated state was seized upon in this performance that ranged in mood from the tragic to the sardonic.

The final work, Brahms Quartet in C minor, Op. 51, No.1 also has an intense drive, opening with a stormy Allegro. There was a hint of Mendelssohn’s Octet in the lightness of this performance alongside the relentless forward momentum. The Jasper Quartet never sacrificed quality for speed. Even the Romanze, though lyrical has an underlying unsettled quality resulting from the restive rhythms in the inner voices and here the quartet emphasized the poetic rather than the virtuosic element. The final section was darkly demonic in its intensity. In the intimacy of the Great Hall of Kohl Mansion the audience can see every nuance, every sparkle of the eye, every collective breath of the performers, and this ensemble playing, infused with energy and intellect at every turn was an absolute joy to behold throughout the entire evening.

Heather J. Morris, Peninsula Reviews
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