Live Music: The Tesla String Quartet at Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall

By Don Heckman

Ashland, Oregon. The performance by the Tesla String Quartet Saturday afternoon at the SOU Music Recital Hall was a virtual definition of the far ranging fascinations of string quartet music.

The Tesla players – violinists Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, cellist Serafim Smigelskiy and violist Edwin Kaplan – offered an impressive program of music reaching across centuries of compositional creativity. And they did so with a superb capacity to find the inner heart of everything they played, regardless of era, style or technical demand.

The performance began, appropriately, with Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 No. 4, a definitive example of classical period composition, written in 1772. Often described as the “father of the string quartet,” Haydn was at his best with this engaging work, filling it with buoyant melodies, challenging the players’ abilities while simultaneously providing them with showcase opportunities to display their skills as both an interactive ensemble and brilliant soloists. The Tesla players captured the work’s appealing qualities from note one, led by Snyder’s leadership and Smigelsky’s emotional drive.

The Tesla Quartet (l to r) Edwin Kaplan, Serafim Smigelskiy, Ross Snyder Michelle Lie
The Tesla Quartet (l to r) Edwin Kaplan, Serafim Smigelskiy, Ross Snyder, Michelle Lie

The second work, Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in E minor, Op. 44 No. 2 took the program on a leap into the Romantic era. Mendelssohn’s orchestral works were among the most appealing of the early 19th century. But, for this listener, his chamber music is heard with less enthusiasm. Nevertheless, the Tesla String Quartet deserves praise for finding the appealing aspects of the E minor Quartet and bringing life to its more dour qualities.

Interestingly, the next work on the Tesla program was 7 Aphorismen, written by 15 year old Linus Kohring, who – like Mendelssohn – is a gifted young prodigy. 7 Aphorismen is a calculatingly contemporary effort, basing its plethora of textures, timbres, distortions and percussive sounds upon every imaginable manipulation of the string instruments in the Quartet. To their credit, the Tesla players delivered every sound demanded of them. And the youthful Kohring has begun to establish his credibility as a new music adventurer. He might do well, however, to listen closely to a work such as Bartok’s String Quartet No. 3, which uses similar instrumental techniques while still communicating as a musical structure.

The piece that brought a superb climax to this engaging afternoon of music was Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 9 in C major, Op. 59 No. 3 It is not viewed as one of the highly praised late Beethoven string quartets. But the work, nonetheless, reveals a mastery of the ensemble’s instrumentation that places it among Beethoven’s finest works for string quartet. Performed by Snyder, Lie, Smigelskiy and Kaplan, it emerged as a defining display of string quartet music at its finest.

So, as a current visitor and possible future resident of Ashland, I’m delighted to send plaudits to the Chamber Music Concerts organization for having presented the Tesla Quartet in such a diversified program, climaxing with Beethoven, staged in the acoustically rewarding setting of the Southern Oregon University Music Recital Hall.

And they’ll be doing it again on Friday January 30 with a concert featuring the intriguing music of Trio Valtorna (violinist Ida Kavafian, French Horn player David Jolley and pianist Gilles Vonssatel).  If you’re fortunate enough to be near Ashland, Oregon at the end of the month, don’t miss that one.

Photo courtesy of the Tesla Quartet.

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