(This review was written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
Austin seemed to take a shine to the personable, industrious Aeolus quartet early on, when, as a graduate level ensemble in residence at the University of Texas, they found themselves recruited for gigs across the city’s classical scene. A few years later, Aeolus — now in residence at Juilliard — were back in on for two shows with the Austin Chamber Music Center.
It’s was a sparkling program, with Haydn, Beethoven and an (approachable!) sextet by Schoenberg.
The theme was transfiguration and the work of each composer touched in some way on that theme. Haydn’s quartet came as he was positioning himself as a Londoner, and maybe some of that city’s vibrancy rubbed off. The Aeolus were dynamite at the fast dancing arpeggios, and the work felt warm and alive.
Like many in the crowd at a private home in West Austin (the second concert was Jan. 24 at First Unitarian Church) I’m not yet a Schoenberg scholar, but “Verklarte Nacht, Op. 4” is a work so powerfully alive that it might make a few converts yet.
As ACMC artistic director Michelle Schumann remarked in her opening commentary — lest people be frightened off by the spectre of atonality —this work appeared right at the heels of the Romantic period. It can’t even be considered 20th Century music, considering it premiered in 1899.
“Verklarte Nacht” (“Transfigured Night”) is a moving work that tracks multiple emotions in dense clusters that shone like diamonds, next to moments of tortured ambivalence. Children of this new millennium, Aeolus seem truly at home in this work. Rounding out the quartet’s expressive textures were the expert additions of violist Bruce Williams and cellist Amy Levin-Tsang.
Maybe it was my spot on the balcony, but the dynamic range felt a touch too narrow, especially in the intimate space of a private home, where it’s almost impossible to be too quiet for full dramatic effect. Yet near the end the came a breathtaking moment of near-silence.
Aeolus are still very young. In a field whose masters tend towards grey hair, their careers have just begun. Not that you’d necessarily know this if you close your eyes. Their skills shine in fast technical movements, the only evidence that seasoning is required appears occasionally in the slower, vulnerable passages.
Aeolus’ Beethoven quartet — “No. 13 in B flat major, Op. 130” — was both technical and musical. It was hard-charging and passionate. First violinist Nicholas Tavani played with a surprising sense of style and improvisation; a few welcome touches of rubato appeared here, and in the Haydn. And the ensemble made the final movement swing.
Their programming has been mature and eclectic, always with an intelligent eye on the modern, and Aeolus continue to make it work.