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Pauline Lerner

Razumovsky at lunchtime

February 12, 2007 at 9:53 PM

I’m working on a short-term contract on the campus of NIH (National Institutes of Health) in Bethesda MD, and today I enjoyed a very pleasant perq: a free lunchtime performance of Beethoven’s String Quartet Opus 59 (Razumovsky) #3. The site of NIH is aptly called a campus because it feels like a large university campus, even though it is a federal government agency. There are over 18,000 employees here, mostly research scientists in biology and medicine. Many scientists are musicians or music lovers, and a small fraction of them benefit from a program sponsored by Merck, the giant pharmaceutical company, which brings the Manchester String Quartet here for a free lunchtime performance once a month. The venue is wonderful – an auditorium so small that no mikes are needed. The sound was big, warm, and exciting, and I felt enveloped in it. When we entered the auditorium, the audience members each received a small brochure of beautifully written and illustrated notes on the programs, and, before the performance, the cellist, Glenn Garlick, spoke to us briefly about the music. His talk was punctuated by performances of small parts (a few lines) of this or other quartets which demonstrated some of the points of his talk. These “extras” included parts of Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet and some Russian folk material. The program notes, which are unusually informative, say that “the bigness of the Razumovsky quartets depends not only on harmonic breadth and sheer size but also on the scope that is made available to four distinct personalities who are prepared to argue or sink their differences.” That’s certainly a good description of the soul of the piece. The notes also say that Beethoven “associates the second violin with the viola as an alto instrument, [making for] a quartet sound weighted in the center.” I found this mode of interplay among the four instruments striking. There was extensive dialogue between the second violin and the viola. The dialogue was fascinating itself, in addition to its effect of setting the first violin and cello off like voices on the extreme edges. I remember reading discussions on in which people say that they like playing second violin in string trios or string quartets because they make inner connections between the outer instruments. Overall, today’s performance by the Manchester String Quartet was stunning.

The setting was so small and informal, that I felt quite comfortable approaching Glenn Garlick and the other members of the quartet after their performance to talk. I was not alone. A lot of listeners who have been attending this concert series for months spoke to Mr. Garlick, and he recognized them and chatted like an old friend. He told me that this concert is one in a three year long series of monthly concerts in which the musicians explore the string quartet genre in chronological succession. Unfortunately, I’ve missed performances of some quartets by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but I look forward to hearing quartets by Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, and more. Mr. Garlick said that it will be easier to understand some of Beethoven’s quartets, which can have the feeling of “dense” sound, after listening to works by Mendelssohn. I asked him where the quartet comes from, expecting to hear “New Hampshire,” but he said that the quartet is locally based. All the players are members of the National Symphony Orchestra. At the time of their first performance, they had to come up with a name quickly, and one of the players suggested Manchester because that is the name of the street where he lives. Unfortunately, the name stuck. I told them that I like a name suggested by someone (I think Sandy Marcus) on – the Mississippi Hot Dog Quartet. Mr. Garlick said that he and the other three players especially enjoyed performing at NIH because so many scientists here are such knowledgeable and enthusiastic listeners. The members of the quartet really did look like they were enjoying themselves, and so did I.

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