Balance: It’s essential to life, nature and art. Without yin there would be no yang, without hate there would be no love, without the dark there would be no light. In chamber music, balance is quite essential. String quartets have the power to simultaneously make an experience intimate and grand, personal and objective, intense and cathartic; their ability to do this lies in their balance. This past Sunday afternoon, at Rackham Auditorium, the Elias Quartet proved their ability at equilibrium.
The four members played and moved together as one instrument, sharing aesthetics that led to a clear, seamless expression of the music’s intent. T.M. Krishna, author of “A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story,” writes: “Is music the proverbial ‘whole’ made up of different parts? It is not. As in a human being, the whole and its parts in music are a unity, with each part having specific characteristics, functions and a form. Together, they are much more than their sum. The aesthetics of music pervades the totality — the whole as well as its several parts. They are as much the whole as the whole is them.”
The Elias Quartet played as a whole. Due to a number of reasons (including misinterpreted, misguided institutional training or personal insecurities), it is rare to see this done through classical quartets. This is not to say the notes and parts can’t be played beautifully, but to achieve this idea of “whole” of which Krishna claims is a feat infrequently attained.
The program consisted of the “Allegro Assai” from Franz Schubert’s “Quartettsatz in c minor,” D. 703, Antonín Dvorák’s “String Quartet in E-flat Major,” Op. 51 and Schubert’s “String Quartet in D minor,” Death and The Maiden. The Elias Quartet played with an array of colors to suit the different characters offered by each piece, ranging from playful to melancholy to mysterious to expressive and everything in between. It felt exciting yet safe — there was never a point where it felt as though the Elias Quartet was anything less than in complete control.
The quartet maintained their nearly perfect intonation throughout the performance, even in the most difficult of areas, such as octaves at the end of the third movement of Dvorák’s Op. 51, and the opening of “Death and The Maiden.” Elias delivered entirely during Schubert’s “Death and The Maiden,” which is regarded as one of the most epic string quartet pieces ever written. Their locked-in rhythm and use of matching vibrato (or lack thereof) felt strong, noble and convincing. The first violinist, Sara Bitlloch, had an ability to produce different kinds of sounds and colors that were quite striking, and the rest of the quartet offered a platform for these colors to radiate.
Their program requires intricate, detailed work in each violin, viola and cello part, and for the ensemble as a whole. The quartet made great use of the silences in their music, taking time to create an air of suspense. Moving notes in the inside voices created the auditory illusion of more than just one player on each part, filling the entirety of the 1,000 plus seats in the auditorium. When the notes slowed down to something more sustained or spaced out, the sense of intimacy returned, heightening the spell of the four artists on the audience.
The highlight of the night was the Elias Quartet’s ability to play softly. Anyone can play loudly, but few can play softly and even fewer can play softly with a sensitivity, gentleness and control that dares the audience to let their walls down and truly, actively listen. The Elias Quartet did just this.