The superb musicians of the Inner Voices String Quartet rescued the evening from rain-soaked winter dreariness Sunday at First Presbyterian Church in Oak Ridge.
The group – first violinist Ruth Bacon, violist Christina Graffeo and cellist Jeanine Wilkinson – also didn’t waste any time introducing their new second violinist, Sarah Ringer, to the deep water of the repertoire the quartet is willing to jump into.
They opened their Oak Ridge Civic Music Association’s Coffee Concert program with Beethoven’s massive 1806 “String Quartet No. 7 in F major,” Op. 59, No. 1, known as the “Razumovsky” quartet after the Russian ambassador to Vienna who commissioned the set of three opus 59 quartets.
At around 39 minutes (only the “A Minor,” Op. 32, is longer at 48 minutes), everyone gets their chance to shine. But the piece seemed to belong to Wilkinson’s cello, which opened the first movement, Beethoven’s way of shaking up the usual format of the melody or theme always going to the first violin.
There were many lovely moments of playing. At times, the sounds produced by Graffeo’s viola and Ringer’s violin playing together had the quality of bells. When the opening phrase played in the cello passed to the first violin, it had a bit of a sense of an echo because the violin was so much lighter in tone.
At other times, the playing rode along the edge of the cliff of dissonance but never quite fell into it, suggesting but not following Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet to which Beethoven hinted.
There were also such unexpected moments as a tune composed of a single growling note in the cello, in the “Allegretto vivace e sempre scherzando” (“always joking”), second movement, that history noted that the cellist in the Schuppanzigh Quartet, Count Razumovsky’s favorite quartet, which premiered the piece, threw his music on the floor and stomped on it. I waited for cellist Wilkinson to follow suit. Gracefully, she didn’t.
The “Adagio molto e mesto” (“slow and rather sad”), third movement, was very beautifully and poetically played with gorgeous atmospherics delicately created by first violinist Bacon.
Although these women’s otherwise busy schedules prevent them from playing together more often, it’s clear that they are very comfortable together to the point of knowing when each other breathes, a point that Beethoven’s writing helps out.
The second piece on Inner Voices’ program was Blount County native Jennifer Higdon’s 2003 string quartet “Impressions,” written as a response to the French impressionist painters Monet and Seurat and the corresponding music of Debussy and Ravel.
Using sound painting to capture the sense of light, especially in Monet’s paintings, the first movement is titled “Bright Palette.” Inner Voices carried it off with delicate, often gossamer, playing.
The second movement, “Quiet Art,” addresses the isolation and solitude in which artists work, along with the passion it takes to succeed. Here the playing was bolder.
The third movement, “To the Point,” speaks specifically to the pointillist paintings of Georges Seurat and others, in which color, tone and image are made by putting small dots of paint colors close together to make entirely different color perceptions.
The fourth movement, “Noted Canvas,” is about the idea of putting images on canvas and the beauty, storytelling and emotional impact paintings can have.
Like the idea of painting not with color but with light, there were open spaces within the sound created by the violins and cello. At several times during Higdon’s quartet Graffeo’s viola could be heard almost wandering around, searching for whether the violins or the cello would be better playmates.
The best way to keep up with Inner Voices and their upcoming concerts is on their Facebook page. But with a new baby expected within their ranks, it may be a while before there’s another chance to hear their delightful playing.