The New York City-based Mendelssohn Quartet--appearing tonight at UC Irvine's University Center Heritage Room--has made quite a name for itself since its inception in 1979.
The group, which is the quartet-in-residence at the Santa Fe (N.M.) Chamber Music Festival and New York City's Hebrew Arts School, has toured the United States extensively, earning considerable acclaim for its exploration of the polychromatic world of Arnold Schoenberg (not Felix Mendelssohn, as the group's name might imply).
When the quartet last appeared in Southern California in May, 1985, it gave performances of the complete five-quartet cycle of that irascible, idiosyncratic master of the 12-tone method, Schoenberg; this time around, the quartet will perform his thorny Third Quartet (Op. 30) as part of the program at UC Irvine.
"I think Schoenberg's gotten something of a bad reputation among audiences who imagine him as very dour, very intellectual," said the group's violist, Ira Weller. "In fact, he's a very emotional composer. Anger, frustration, alienation, bitterness--all these tend to spill out of the music, especially in the quartets. Perhaps the fact that these emotions aren't what an audience would normally expect to experience is what makes Schoenberg something of a difficult listen. But I think we've gotten around that now."
So where does Mendelssohn fit in?
"We've recorded his seven quartets also," Weller said. "But the name isn't that significant. We just happened to like the way it sounded when we formed the quartet. That's all there is to it."
Although the program for tonight's recital excludes Mendelssohn, it includes Franz Josef Haydn's F Major Quartet, Op. 77, and Czech composer Antonin Dvorak's E-flat Major Quartet, Op. 51, which Weller called "a very Czech-ered work."
"The whole piece is founded on Czech dance rhythms," he continued. "The second movement is based on a dumka (a slow, somewhat melancholy Czech dance meter), and the rest of the work is filled with Czech dance movement. Though Dvorak was generally quite ethnic, this quartet is especially so."
And the Haydn is one of the last quartets the composer ever wrote, coming as it did on the heels of Beethoven's first set of works in the genre, Weller said.
"There's a story about these last two Haydn quartets, though it's probably just apocryphal," he continued. "The Beethoven Op. 18 quartets appeared at about the same time, and both composers had been commissioned by the same Viennese nobleman to write a set of six quartets. But when Haydn heard the Beethoven works, he stopped after finishing just two of his own works and went on to the oratorios."
Performances of the complete cycles of either Beethoven or Haydn are not in the quartet's future, however, Weller said.
"The Beethovens would be a vast undertaking, and there's already a bunch of good quartets out there playing them now," he commented. "And Papa Haydn wrote 80-odd quartets, so that doesn't seem too likely. The Shostakovich works are a possibility, but the Fitzwilliam Quartet has that territory mapped out.
"With some composers, it doesn't really make for good programming; with Dvorak, for instance, the compositional growth isn't all that marked, as it is with Schoenberg. To perform them all at a series of concerts wouldn't make for consistently interesting programming.
"But we're continuing to grow as a group, and so the next project will reveal itself as we keep maturing."