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The Daedalus String Quartet: “Music in Exile”

From November 11-18, the students and faculty of the University of Iowa School of Music and the Iowa City community at large were blessed to have the Daedalus String Quartet in residence.  The theme for their residence was “Music From Exile,” and a week full of guest coachings, masterclasses, lectures, and other various collaborations culminated in their concert on Sunday, November 17 at 3:00 p.m. in Riverside Recital Hall.

The Quartet chose this program as a result of their having been directly taught by musicians here in the United States who were alive during, and affected by the political and cultural events of the rise of the Third Reich.  This program was intended to honor their memory and to bring awareness to composers and works that were produced during this time period, but for various reasons, have fallen in to relative obscurity.

The first piece on the program was the Five Pieces for String Quartet (1923) by the German-Jewish composer Erwin Shulhoff.  Shulhoff took inspiration from a variety of influences, but he had a special passion for dance, and that is overtly apparent in this work, which carries movement titles of: Alla Valse viennese, Alla Serenata, Alla Czeca, Alla Tango Milonga, and Alla Tarantella.  It is also interesting to note that Shulhoff amused himself with a parody of sorts in the first movement by writing it in the style of a Viennese Waltz, (which would be in 3/4), but notating the score in 4/4.  The quartet did an excellent job of capturing the “waltz” character of this movement despite the discrepancy in the scoring, and the swatches that did feel in 4/4 were a refreshing contrast from the traditional character ascribed to this movement.

The second piece on the program was the String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 66 (1959) by Mieczslaw Weinberg, and this piece was a stark contrast to the overall “gaiety,” (minus perhaps the Tango Milonga), of the first collection of dance movements by Shulhoff.  Weinberg was an artist who interestingly, fled to the East to the Soviet Union when the Nazi regime came in to power, and he unfortunately also endured a hard life under the regime of Stalinism.  Add to the fact that most of Weinberg’s family was killed in concentration camps and the Warsaw Ghetto, and you have a composer who bore the weight of the world on his shoulders so to speak.  These dark, sad emotions are definitely transmitted through Weinberg’s String Quartet No. 8 and the listening experience was a sobering one.

Viktor Ullmann was a Jewish-Austrian composer who, despite his optimistic spirit during the war, ended up dying in the gas chambers at Auschwitz.  His third String Quartet, Op. 46 (1943) provided an eclectic listening experience through the incorporation of: warm/lush melodies, a frightening scherzo, a somber fugue with dance-like motives, and a flashy finale that ends triumphantly.  All these things together I feel incapsulated for me as the listener who I understood Ulmann to be as a person — hopeful and yet, having to deal with the harsh reality of the world he was living in during this time.

Lastly on the program was the String Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 34 (1945) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold.  Most of us are familiar with Korngold through the movie scores that he wrote, (my favorite being the Erroll Flynn Robin Hood!) and I have always equated Korngold with the hight of romanticism in the early 20th century.  However, this work challenged my perceptions of Korngold’s compositional voice through the initial usage of “shifty” tonalities.  But quickly, glimpses of the “quintessential” Korngold are heard throughout the work through his quotation of previous movie scores and overall I found this work to be delightful, and the perfect mixture of dramatic and romantic.

My feelings about this concert as a whole were that it is quite possibly one of the most effective performances I have ever been to.  The programmatic content especially tugs at the heartstrings of everyone who listens, and the Daedalus are to be commended for their innovative programming.

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