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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Chamber music groups playing at Mondavi Center throughout December

The programs feature Dvorak and the Brandenburg Concertos

By RACHEL SHEY – city@theaggie.org

On Dec. 5, the Alexander String Quartet came to the Mondavi Center to play two pieces by Antonin Dvorak. Currently composed of two violins, a viola and a cello, the quartet also occasionally collaborates with one of its original founders, making it a sometime quintet. They are a well-known chamber music quartet and have been famous for years, according to violinist and quartet member Frederick Lifsitz. 

“The quartet started in New York City and it became obvious to the people in the quartet that they had to give up their other obligations, the Metropolitan Opera, the other things they were doing, in order to focus on the quartet,” Lifsitz said. “They won a competition at Carnegie Hall and they won a concert artist guild in New York, and they won the London Prize in London, which catapulted the quartet very quickly into concerts throughout Europe and the United States.” 

The quartet has collaborated with UC Davis and played at the Mondavi Center for years, treating it as a sort of home base. Now based in San Francisco, the quartet doesn’t have to go far to visit UC Davis and enjoys the small-town atmosphere and natural environment in Davis.

We used to perform at UC Davis in what was a barn for horses,” Lifsitz said. “It still had that odor of horses, not that I minded it. Sometimes we played in the great science halls. But there was no great space for music, and when Mondavi was built, we were invited by the director to become the ensemble in residence.”

Lifsitz described the halls as “wonderful, really world class.” 

“The small hall of course is unique with the large window that you can see people cycling and walking by, and you see the beautiful trees changing with the seasons, and the big hall is one of the finest halls in the world,” Lifsitz said.

Robert Besen, who has been the quartet’s manager since 1999, commented that the music choice for the performance was perfectly in line with the mood of the season. 

“When I had the initial conversations with the Mondavi administration about programming for this season, they said, ‘Convey to the quartet that we want to do whatever they want to do, but it would be really nice if they choose some music that’s joyful,’” Besen said. “And that naturally led to Dvorak — there’s a straight line there.”

Lifsitz observed that Dvorak’s music is often delightful to audiences, suffused with joy and Czech melodies. It’s also good music to match the holiday atmosphere of December. 

“He’s a composer of huge gifts, who had the ability to tap into what was most precious to him, the poetic life of a Czech community and Bohemian melodies,” Lifsitz said. “He never forgot the things his mom sang to him or the things he heard in the village outside of Prague that he lived in. He was an extraordinarily principled and hardworking man. It’s music that we love. The minute we start playing it, we see audiences go, ‘Wow!’ Sometimes people will hold hands, if they’re together. Sometimes people will just smile.” 

The Alexander String Quartet is not the only group to visit Davis. The Chamber Music Society of the Lincoln Center stopped by the Mondavi Center on Dec. 10 to play the Brandenburg Concertos on their tour. According to violinist and member of the society Daniel Phillips, the society is similar to a symphony, but for chamber music. 

“The idea was to have a group of chamber music players, just like you’d have a symphony,” Phillips said. “There’s a core group of players who are in the troupe, so to speak, like repertory theater.”

Flutist and member of the society Tara Helen O’Connor added that the group has grown significantly. 

“That’s how it started out, and then over time, it’s really expanded into a much larger organization,” O’Connor said. “The Chamber Music Society doesn’t only play in New York City at Alice Tully Hall. They do a significant amount of touring. It’s a really international organization now under the directorship of David [Finckel] and Wu Han and there’s a lot going on.” 

The Brandenburg Concertos are a staple of the society and of the holiday season, according to O’Connor. Phillips said that the pieces involve unique combinations of instruments.

“The concertos as a whole — they’re very festive pieces that use a lot of people onstage, at least for a chamber music event,” Phillips said. “It’s the chamber music world’s version of ‘The Nutcracker.’ It happens every year around this time, and we have sold-out crowds in New York City, dying to hear them again.” 

O’Connor is excited to play live again, after the pandemic restricted live performances for such a long time. 

“After a year of COVID-19, two years of COVID-19, I’m just so excited,” O’Connor said. “The halls that we get to go play in all of these places are stunning. Each hall, it almost feels like it outdoes the next one. We’re really excited about coming everywhere with this group. And after a tour like that, it’s also so nice to come back home and play for your home audience.”

Written by: Rachel Shey – city@theaggie.org

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