It was a sweet homecoming Sunday evening for violinist Ariana Kim, a St. Paul native who nowadays plies her trade as a professional musician in New York City. She’s also a professor at Cornell University.
Eighteen months ago Kim joined the Aizuri Quartet, an ensemble that recently won the Grand Prize at the prestigious 2018 M-Prize international chamber arts competition in Ann Arbor, Mich. Sunday’s concert at Hamline University’s Sundin Music Hall was the Aizuri’s Minnesota debut, leaving a packed audience with no doubts as to why the ensemble “resoundingly connected” with the M-Prize judges.
The recital started in an intimate, low-key fashion, with an arrangement by Alex Fortes of a piece of plainchant by 12th-century Christian mystic Hildegard von Bingen. Above a single drone note on the cello, the upper instruments took turns intoning Hildegard’s melody, shaving the vibrato off their playing, and summoning the more placid atmosphere of distant, bygone periods.
Shades of a Celtic sensibility stalked Fortes’ arrangement, while his quartet version of two madrigals by renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo referenced the lean, melancholy aesthetic of the Elizabethan consort.
The next work wrenched the audience into the present. Paul Wiancko’s “Lift” is described by the composer as “an investigation of elation and the journey of a soul.” On a technical level, the piece is a dazzling demonstration of pretty much every sound the contemporary string quartet is capable of making. Slides, slithers, plucks, pizzicati, hammerings and screeches — no effect was left unattended by the Aizuri players in an adrenaline-fueled performance that riveted attention from start to finish.
“Lift” is undoubtedly a virtuoso display piece, but it is also a compelling piece of music. The intense polyphony of Part III, the gawky dance licks of Part IV and the crazy, postmodern hoedown of the work’s conclusion — these and other moments left a lingering impression.
After intermission came Lembit Beecher’s “These Memories May Be True,” four short pieces based on Estonian folk material. It provided some welcome breathing space before Beethoven’s “Harp” Quartet, which concluded the concert.
The Aizuri’s interpretation of the “Harp” was filled with pulsating and interesting detail. Beethoven’s spurts of quasi-improvisation in the opening movement were cleverly suggested in the deft interchanges among the four players. And the surging energies of the development section were bristlingly registered. Even in the furiously busy Presto movement, the Aizuri players made it easy to hear what the different instruments were doing, achieving clarity and incisiveness in music that can quickly become ragged and mushy.
And that was probably the most striking aspect of the quartet’s performances throughout the recital: These players were acutely balanced in their responses to one another. They knew how to make individual points without commandeering the musical narrative. That is a precious gift for a string quartet, and it made for an evening of unusually stimulating, satisfying chamber music.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com.