CMNW: The Orion takes on Schubert and Beethoven

The Orion Quartet passes the challenges of "Death and the Maiden" and a late Beethoven quartet

By ANGELA ALLEN

Orion is among the sky’s brightest constellations. You can see it with the naked eye, especially when the stars shine on its belt. In its 12th year at Chamber Music Northwest Festival, the Orion Quartet chose a good name for its consistently lauded 30-year-old group, comprised of brother violinists Todd and Daniel Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom and cellist Timothy Eddy.

Orion’s musicians lit up the audience Thursday, July 7, at Reed’s Kaul Auditorium with its cleanly and movingly rendered interpretations of Franz Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 (“Death and the Maiden”) and Beethoven’s 1826’s String Quartet in C-sharp Minor, Op 131.

The Orion String Quartet performed Beethoven and Schubert for Chamber Music Northwest last week/Photo: Lois Greenstein

The Orion String Quartet performed Beethoven and Schubert for Chamber Music Northwest last week/Photo: Lois Greenstein

These romantic pieces are demanding and dramatic— and lengthy. “Death and the Maiden” clocks in at 42 minutes and its tempos swing from sweet to fierce to a rapid tarantella (a kind of mad dance) on the spine of death-signifying, galloping horse rhythms. If the brothers Phillips could pull off Andrew Norman’s witty high-velocity “Gran Turismo” earlier in the week, with its demand of immense technical dexterity, they can do anything. The lyrical “Death and the Maiden” navigates the curving Romantic road of ups and downs rather than spinning out on ever higher, faster, louder trajectories as Norman’s does, and it’s far more nuanced and soulful than Norman’s piece.

The 37-minute Beethoven quartet, one of the master’s later works, is a boundary-pusher with its key changes and seven movements that run one into the other. There is barely a pause between each. Forget stiff classicism and formality in these late quartets. When I hear Beethoven’s emotion-charged movements change from one theme to another, one key to another, one form to another, I think that many Romantic composers had bipolar tendencies: Their music swings from up in the skies to down in the depths. Beethoven enriches those mood swings, of course, notably in the fourth movement, contrasting sublime heights with earthy tunes.

The Beethoven quartet, pieced together in 1825-26, was so beloved by Schubert that he asked for it to be played for him on his deathbed. Schubert was reportedly left swooning, overwhelmed with joy, a good way to go out for a musician who died at 31 and complained as much of devastating depression as he reveled in ecstatic states. He was awed by Beethoven, who died a year before him, and was said to be afraid to talk to him when the two passed on the street. In 1888, the musicians’ graves were moved to Zentralfriedhof, a Viennese cemetery, so any distance between them was closed.

The Orion musicians ignored encore calls amid the profuse applause. Can you imagine playing a note more after tackling these two pieces as well as performing Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13 and Beethoven’s String Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 earlier in the week at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall?

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.

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