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Borealis String Quartet

Review by Patrick Ledwell

Johannes Goethe once observed, “I call architecture frozen music,” and in many ways, you can see the century-old St. Mary’s Church in Indian River as this metaphor made real. During the performance I attended, I could easily imagine my surroundings as the outcome of a musical moment crystallized and then scaffolded with wood, the melodic lines converted to arches and the plucked quarter notes to supportive columns.

If this sounds a bit cracked, I’ll defend my imaginings as being somewhat in tune with those of the church’s designer, the renowned Island architect, William Critchlow Harris. Harris (who receives second billing only to the Creator in the province’s design credits) was preoccupied with acoustical perfection, and the church’s interior was conceived as an experiment in preserving musical timbre through arrangements of timber. Music rises to the 60 foot high vaulted ceiling, where ribbed interlacings of Island hardwood and softwood faithfully carry it back to each waiting ear.

It is a testament to this acoustical achievement that the Indian River Festival can attract performers as accomplished as the British Columbia-based Borealis String Quartet. True to their name, the quartet—Patricia Shih and Yuel Yawney on violins, Nikita Pogrebnoy on viola, and Joel Stobbe on cello— are seen as bright lights in the Canadian classical music horizon. My ear detected a unique sympathy between the wood in their instruments and that lining this countryside church, creating an electric evening where the performers and the space resonated as a single instrument.

The performers were as synchronized with each other as they were with the atmosphere. Goethe observed that string quartets are a “conversation among equals” (quite a busy observer, that Goethe), and the members of the Borealis Quartet are well-matched in their virtuosic mastery of their instruments. Brilliant conversants do not assure good dialogue, though, and it was enthralling to watch how these musicians used a richly physical performance to choreograph shared musical phrases.

This idea of conversation carried strongly across the three complementary selections performed by the Borealis Quartet. The first piece, Haydn’s Quartet in D major, Op. 64, no. 5, is subtitled “The Lark.” In the opening sonata, the light-hearted and trilling first violin was as carefree as a bird’s flight, but in an ongoing conversation, this motif was counterpoised by staccato, measured accompaniment from the other three instruments. The String Quartet in E flat major by Fanny Mendelssohn is an especially distinctive work considering the suffocating norms of her time, where both her father and famous composer brother forbade her from publishing any of her compositions. The quartet’s performance evoked an argument between resignation and hope. The falling third movement, where the performers pass around a forlorn repeated motif, is answered by an energetic finale, which makes a final statement of resolve and persistence.

The most impassioned playing of the evening came during the final work, Schubert’s String Quartet in D Minor, D 810, no. 14, also known as “Death and the Maiden.” Composed when Schubert became aware of his impending death, in his late 20s, the performance spoke expressively about the double bind between sexuality and mortality. The lurching dance between sensual and desolate themes throughout the final movement, where you can feel the composer desperately writing to cheat death’s onset, left the audience breathless and on its feet.

To spend an evening at the Indian River Festival is literally to experience an evening in concert—the performance, the architecture, and the surrounding green countryside all reverberate with a single harmonious note.

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