February 12, 2014—We are privileged here in Chicago to be home to one of the finest orchestras in the world, and downright spoiled that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians are featured in their own chamber music series in collaboration with The Art Institute of Chicago. On Sunday, February 9, the String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major, Op. 67 by Johannes Brahms, and the String Quartet No. 6 by Béla Bartók were performed by the Meridian String Quartet: Cornelius Chiu, violin, Kozue Funakoshi, violin, Weijing Wang, viola, and Daniel Katz, cello.

The tendency of artistic disciplines to segregate themselves is a little baffling, so to spend an afternoon with visual art and music integrated into one program experience was a refreshing treat. As a newcomer to this series, it came as delightful surprise that the performance was preceded by a brief lecture highlighting a few paintings from the collections, and as an added benefit, audience members were invited to join the guide on a brief tour of the galleries to view the paintings in person at the conclusion of the concert.

Navigating the complexities of comparison is not always an easy task, and the art works selected as representative of some of the musical elements of the Brahms and Bartók (amongst them, Delacoix, Gauguin, Rossetti and Constable) struck me more as conjured rather than meaningful. However, the discussion of Constable, “painting scenes of nostalgia,” away from the Industrial Revolution sweeping his native England, seemed a very apt visual context for the music of Brahms, who loved the outdoors, and whose music is constantly imbued with dark, melancholy aching; and Bartók, whose sixth quartet was written in the shadow of his mother’s death, and his impending departure from Hungary (and Europe) with the outbreak of war biting at his heels.

When it came to the music, the Meridian String Quartet delivered impeccable performances of both works. Those familiar with Arnold Schoenberg’s essay, Brahms the Progressive, are acquainted with his ardent (and spot-on) insistence that the rhythmic irregularities Brahms wrote are crucial components that are too often executed lazily, therefore never quite allowing the listeners the full effect of such subtle syncopation. The members of Meridian gave wonderful depth to their interpretation by being rhythmically precise, thus framing the colors and textures inherent to the score. A special treat was the simply gorgeous tone of Weijing Wang during the extended viola solos of the third movement. The instrument withstands a lot of jokes, but when played well, it emits a rich sound like none other.

Following intermission, the quartet delivered a powerhouse performance of the Bartók, a difficult and intricate work. In particular, their ability as an ensemble to navigate the numerous transitions (thematic, rhythmic, dynamic) so tightly, infused the music with a vital sense of momentum and direction—qualities that could have easily been muddled in the hands of less skilled crafters. The integrity of the structural complexity was not simply maintained, but underscored.

Meridian String Quartet violist Weijing Want (photo courtesy of the Meridian String Quartet).

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