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Music review: Tokyo String Quartet and Dilijan turn to Beethoven for healing

April 20, 2011 |  3:30 pm

Spanish_Courtyard_(credit_Henry_J._Fair)

Beethoven finished his String Quartet No. 15, Opus 132, in A Minor, the summer of 1725, after enduring, for a month, such abdominal agony that he was sure that he would die. Well again, if only temporarily (he died less than two years later), he made the center of his new quartet a hymn to healing.

He titled the movement a “Holy Song of Thanks from a Convalescent to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode.” The musicologist Joseph Kerman has written that the quartet maps a psychological progress “perhaps more arresting than in any other work.” And at its core is this movement that tricks triumph from tragedy, that unites body and soul, that makes the divided self once more whole.

Opus 132 had two performances this week, both with the implication that Beethoven could provide essential spiritual succor. Dilijan, the Armenian-themed chamber music series at Zipper Hall of the Colburn School, ended its season Sunday afternoon with Opus 132 for its annual concert “In Commemoration of the Armenian Genocide.”

Tuesday night, the quartet closed the final music event of the JapanOC Festival with an appearance by the Tokyo String Quartet, presented by the Philharmonic Society of Orange County in the small Samueli Theater. No mention was made in the program of the travails by the Japanese in the wake of their devastating earthquake. But in the lobby of the adjoining Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, schoolchildren were fashioning origami cranes as a fundraiser to help the people of Japan.

Beethoven’s job was large. These two tragedies, nearly a century apart, require different responses. Japan works toward the immediate relief from suffering caused by an act of nature. Armenia’s old wounds, the result of cultural conflict, are now psychic, and the cure is the compassion of history.
What Beethoven’s quartet offered Dilijan was the concept that differences can be reconciled. What it provided the Tokyo Quartet was not only the promise of “new strength,” but how unspeakably marvelous that new strength feels when it arises out of hopelessness.

Beethoven’s inspiration in his “Holy Song of Thanks” was to contrast three slow, otherworldly hymn-like sections in the archaic Lydian mode (made up of the white keys on the piano) with two “new strength” interludes, in which the music abruptly jumps out of bed, takes a deep breath and dashes out the window into the fragrant flowery fields. The sense of exhilaration is incomparable.

But the movement’s real sublimity comes later when Beethoven transforms the final hymn section into something life-affirming, into the inner workings of a new dawn.

The Dilijan performers were violinist Movses Pogossian, a superb solo violinist and chamber musician with a keenness for new music, and three members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic –- violinist Varty Manouelian, principal violist Carrie Dennis and principal cellist Peter Stumpf. They brought an extroverted individuality, ironically more suited to the Beethoven of new discovery than ending conflict.

The Tokyo, formed in 1969, still retains one original member, violist Kazuhide Isomura, and Kikuei Ikeda has been second violinist since 1974. The non-Japanese members, Canadian first violinist Martin Beaver and British cellist Clive Greensmith joined in 2002 and 2000, respectively.

The four play, dazzlingly, as one. The ensemble tone is shiny and pure. Tempos are never too fast or too slow. Contrast -- one of the main characters of Beethoven’s quartet -- is, for them, to be minimized.

On Tuesday, then, the Tokyo's Lydian hymn wasn’t mystical but meditative. New strength wasn’t blowhard brawn, but instead a stirring breeze.

A sense of contemplation was felt in the other movements too. The glassy high violin passages in the trio were visionary sounding for the Dilijan, while a subtle change of light, a slightly different perspective. The Tokyo's Beethoven offered no false hopes, just a sense that life goes on and the assurance that cherry blossoms will still be harbingers of a new-season, be it a happy or sad spring.

In the first half, the Tokyo presented an immaculate reading of Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K. 421, and an intense performance of Toru Takemitsu’s “A Way A Lone.” Written for the ensemble in 1981, the later work takes its title from James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake.” It is music that begins over and over again, 100 short sighs in 15 minutes. “A Way A Lone,” the Tokyo seemed to imply, need not be, in a time of crisis, a way alone, and that was very moving.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: The Tokyo String Quartet, clockwise from top left -- Kazuhide Isomura, Clive Greensmith, Kikuei Ikeda and Martin Beaver. Credit: Henry J. Fair/Tokyo String Quartet.

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