No bright lights and glaring spots for the Abramyan String Quartet. Indeed Sunday at the Salt Lake Art Center its members were less well illuminated than some sections of the audience. And, to an extent, the same might be said of their playing.
In many ways, in fact, this group is very like the person from whom they take their name, their late Utah Symphony colleague, violinist Ashot Abramyan. Like him, they seem a bit shy and retiring, but also courteous, sensitive and unfailingly musical.At least that was the impression left by their program Sunday, the first of three concerts planned at the Salt Lake Art Center.
In their hands Mendelssohn's Op. 12 Quartet in E flat major, yet another marvel from his teenage years, emerged in wistfully subdued fashion. That's not out of place in a piece whose outer movements end quietly. But even such tensile strength as there was - in the finale, for instance - was of a distinctly old-world cast.
That gave the writing an inward quality, whether in the lyrically unpressured first movement or the lightly dancing Canzonetta, a bit more cheerfully sprung but again gracefully subdued. Yet the playing itself remained generally cultivated and well-meshed, both here and in the piece that followed, "Wasatch Breezes" by local composer Marie Barker Nelson.
Dedicated to the Abramyan Quartet, the piece was premiered by them earlier this year in Japan. Yet it dates from 1953, when Nelson was studying with Leroy Robertson at the University of Utah. (It was in fact her master's thesis.)
As such, it reflects both his influence and that of Paul Hindemith, who earlier had been her teacher at Yale. Meaning that the Hinde-mithian thematic material is placed within a recognizably American context, particularly in the slow movement, whose pastoral hues were here spread across a Barber-like arch, again songful, sensitive and exquistely colored.
Add a touch of whimsy amid the skipping pizzicati of the finale, and you have an enjoyable 11 minutes, capped by a nice little flourish at the end.
Following a brief intermission, this in turn was capped by Dvorak's "American" Quartet, his Op. 96, here no marvel of intonation (as the frequent retunings bore witness) but briskly pointed and well into the spirit of the writing.
Indeed one was reminded how like his Op. 95 (the "New World" Symphony) this piece is, being at once ardent, energetic and nostaligic - again not for the new world, but for the old.
Against this, violinist Gerald Elias' solos emerged character-fully, as did those for viola and cello. So much so that, following the first movement, the violist's daughter could be heard to shout, "Yay, yay, yay!" Which may have been a bit more enthusiastic than my response, but not by much.