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The Jupiter Quartet performing.

Making the Unfamiliar Understandable

Did someone say chamber music is passé? Boring? Old-fashioned? By Jupiter, they’re wrong! At their third appearance with the San Antonio Chamber Music Society, the Jupiter String Quartet presented a program entitled “Folk Encounters,” and the audience-folk received it warmly. The first two selections couldn’t have been more varied: Wynton Marsalis’ “Quartet No. 1, At the Octoroon Balls,” presented a blues undertone combined with flicks of barn dance and tons of energy. And “Life in Wayang,” by Malaysian-American composer Su Lian Tan was complex, graceful, but somehow familiar with its overtones of Mahler. And these were just the first two compositions performed with precision and understanding by our old friends, the Jupiter.

Nelson Lee, first violin, Megan Freivogel McDonough, second violin, her sister Liz Freivogel, viola, and Megan’s husband, Daniel McDonough, cello, comprise this incredibly busy multiple-award-winning quartet, and it is always our great fortune that SACMS can squeeze in a place on their schedule. Seldom does a quartet have such a profound sense of their musical conversation – even the most complex passages are performed with complete comprehension of the music and unerring ability to interpret the tonal essence of the character of each piece. Both of these compositions expressed a certain longing for home which Jupiter expressed with the pure enthusiasm that comes from a deep understanding of the composers’ intentions.

“Life in Wayang” is a composition and a genre totally unfamiliar to me, but Jupiter has a knack for making the unusual and unfamiliar understandable. With its unexpected Bach-like measures, it found a way to combine the Malaysian with the Classic and make the music somehow familiar. The Marsalis composition was more familiar to begin with, but it veered off into the unexpected and even atonal, and the quartet was able to present this nearly folk music vibe with joy and energy.

The Jupiter Quartet standing to take a bow.

The final selection was Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14 which was filled with Bohemian warmth. As performed by Jupiter, the composition in four movements began with a ringing Allegro, moved to Molto Vivace (which made me think of embroidery), changed to a lullaby start of the Lento movement, and ended with an Allegro that included hints of the composer’s enjoyment of American harmonies. The quartet moved through these variations with harmonic balance and rhythmic precision, enabling the audience to share Dvořák’s experiences of joyful travels across America and his excitement anticipating the return journey to his homeland Czechoslovakia.

This program was well-considered and well-performed and, well, the great Jupiter always delivers! We hope to see these old friends again in the near future. Meanwhile, we look forward to this season’s final concert on April 28, 2024 – a quintet of world-class artists led by renowned violinist Cho-Liang Lin and clarinet virtuoso David Shifrin will wow us with Tango music and transport us to Argentina. Don’t miss this!

E Doyle