Thursday, January 22, 2009

Vilnius String Quartet

I decided to flirt with becoming a self-proclaimed music critic this evening. With notebook in hand, I attended a concert of the Vilnius String Quartet featuring guest pianist, Dainius Vaičekonis, presented by the Seattle Lithuanian Community, at Latvian Hall. In true critic fashion, I sacrificed the post-concert reception of tantalizing finger foods, booze and shmooze, in order to meet my deadline. What do those critics really do, anyway?

The Latvian Hall was bustling with audience members, eager to hear their countrymen. After a warm greeting and introduction by Mr. Vaičekonis, the Vilnius String Quartet proceeded with Schubert's Quartet #10 in E-flat, a youthful work composed when Schubert was only 16 years of age. The ensemble performed with sensitivity, poise and precision, though I found the opening bars of the first movement overly cautious and thin, particularly in the low registers of the first violin, as if sufficient calories had been lacking at dinner. By the Scherzo movement, however, the quartet's sound thickened to my taste.

The second composition on the program, Quartet #2 by Osvaldas Balakauskas, captivated this listener's interest and imagination. Balakauskas, one of Lithuania's most prolific composers of today, utilizes a technic of diatonic tone rows in his string quartet which guides the listener into an auditory Rorschach test. To my mind, the haunting groans, moans, and shrieks emitted by the quartet evoked images of Ponary (Paneriai), the killing fields, a forest six miles from Vilna. It was at Ponary that between 70,000 to 100,000 Jewish victims were murdered by the SS and Lithuanian collaborators during the Shoah. I shivered throughout the ghostly second movement; bones clattered through the use of col legno, the elegiac cello, played magnificently by Augustinas Vasilauskas, sighed through the device of glissando pizzicato; the viola maintained a contrapuntal voice of rhythmic reason amidst the cries. The quartet of Mr. Balakauskas offers a kaleidoscope of sounds, and I hope to hear more of his compositions performed in Seattle.

The program concluded with an insightful and robust rendition of the Brahms Piano Quintet in f minor. This work, a tour-de-force, offered Mr. Vaičekonis, a daring and technically assured pianist (these days on the faculty of Bellevue Music Works and staff accompanist for Western Washington University) an opportunity to collaborate with his former mentors from the Lithuanian Music Academy. The first violinist, Audronė Vainiŭnaitė (she has been a member of the Vilnius String Quartet since 1965) led the stellar ensemble with a no-nonsense, authoritative approach. The Brahms Piano Quintet exploded with rhythmic vitality, seering intensity, and pathos. Tonight's superb performance makes me want to put away the critic's notebook, have a bite to eat, and practice.
Vilnius String Quartet, Dainius Vaičekonis

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