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Great Music Ahead at Norfolk

The Jasper String Quartet came to town last Saturday and Sunday, first donating their services for a house concert Saturday night at the home of Anthony and Helen Scoville in Salisbury to promote the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, and then presenting a public concert Sunday at Infinity Hall. I was at the former event, and the advance buzz on the group was not understated. With but a few more weeks to go in their program at Yale where, as the graduate quartet-in-residence, they have been coached by the Tokyo Quartet, this is already an astounding ensemble.

   In the two-story space of a cozy living room with forty guests in attendance, The Jasper played two works of Beethoven, one very early and one very late. The quartet in F, Op. 18 No. 1 gives the first fiddle a real workout, in the manner of Mozart and Haydn, although Beethoven starts exploring a more romantic style involving more interplay with the other three musicians in the rhapsodic slow movement that evokes the tomb scene from “Romeo and Juliet.†J Freivogel, who holds degrees in violin and politics (very useful for a first violinist), handled the virtuosic first violin part with the ease of a top race-car driver navigating the Amalfi Drive, while his cellist wife, Rachel Henderson Freivogel, watched him while playing from memory much of the time, as did the others. The camaraderie these four share, The Frievogels, violinist Sae Niwa and violist Sam Quintal, shone through as they traded phrases, smiling and leaning in towards each other to communicate.

   The later work, Op. 127 in E flat, written the year before the composer died, and when he could not hear a note of it, demands the utmost from its performers. Jasper may be an opaque stone, but there was nothing opaque about this reading, rather a remarkable lucidity and clarity in every detail. The music breathed and swelled in an expressive way without being over-calculated. Even the moments of silence vibrated with an energy. The scherzo, unusual in its length, presents a host of ensemble challenges: sudden shifts of tempo and dynamics, and themes tossed from one instrument to another. Here, as in the finale, they sometimes missed nuances that can only come from many years of living with this music. For now, the Jasper is well on its way to becoming one of the world’s great string quartets. They will perform at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, NY, on Aug. 5.

   The musicians were introduced by Norfolk Music Festival director Paul Hawkshaw, where the Jasper has spent the past couple of summers. The  season opens June 20 at 4 p.m., with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band swinging into the Music Shed on the Batell Stoeckel Estate off Route 44. July 10 at 8 p.m., a gala is scheduled with the Zukerman Chamber Players.

   The festival focuses primarily on teaching a highly select group of young musicians from all over the globe who give free student concerts on Thursdays and Saturdays. Professional groups, including the Tokyo String Quartet, perform on weekend evenings. There is choral music, new contemporary works, and a lecture series. For the full schedule, go to www.norfolkmusic.org. 860-542-3000.

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