The Rolston String Quartet in Blacksburg

March 27, 2018, 1:39 PM · On a beautiful late-winter day in Blacksburg, Virginia, the Rolston String Quartet performed an equally beautiful recital to a smallish but characteristically enthusiastic crowd of die-hard music lovers. Undaunted by the 8-10 inches of snow that had blanketed the entire region less than two days before, the quartet appeared on stage, exactly at the chosen hour, youthful and shiny (especially the patent-leather shoes of the three gentlemen!).

Originally formed from a group of friends at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, the Rolston Quartet rose quickly to fame by claiming First Prize at the 12th Banff International Competition in 2016, in addition to prizes at M-Prize (University of Michigan) and Bordeaux 2016. These achievements have resulted in many recital appearances worldwide. They are now quartet-in-residence at Yale.

Rolston Quartet
The Rolston String Quartet. Photo by Tianxiao Zhang.

The recital opened with the lovely “Bird” Quartet (Haydn Op. 39 No. 3, C major), which is full of trills and other chirping ornaments, mostly in the first violin. Close communication and careful balance among the players is essential to successful Haydn, which is why I personally find that Haydn is must better performed by quartets such as the Rolston (and the St. Lawrence and others) who have rehearsed and toured together for some time. Haydn did not write much for the inside voices, so it is up to the musicians to find and deliver that inner beauty to the main themes. Second violinist Jeffrey Dyrda and violist Hezekiah Leung did their work to bring out all of the hidden richness and humor of great Haydn. I was grateful that I could hear the violist and watch his hands because the quartet used the traditional seating arrangement with the cellist on the outside, which I strongly prefer.

The first half closed with the Debussy String Quartet (G minor). This piece always reduces me to tears at least a few times. The quartet demonstrated the tremendous range of sounds and feelings that are only possible through true individual virtuosity. Here cellist Jonathan Lo’s velvety tone set the standard for the other players, who built on his lines as I believe Debussy intended. But if I had to choose one aspect of the entire afternoon’s performance, an aspect that had me at a loss for words, it was first violinist Luri Lee’s performance in the Debussy. Lee can go from the most intimate whisper to a volcanic fortissimo within a single short phrase, and with absolute command. She is a tiny person, but her whole physical stance opens, and she draws out all the latent capabilities of her exquisite Carlo Tononi violin. Throughout all three pieces, her manipulation of tonal color (mostly with her bow, it seemed to me, but also with supple vibrato) was as confident as I’ve ever heard.

After an intermission the recital closed with a fine reading of Tchaikovsky (Op. 11, No. 1, D major). I need to study the score of that one because I thought I heard one of the themes from the great Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto embedded in the last movement of this quartet. This piece featured all of the musicians in equal balance and highlighted their special synergy and unified musicality.

Afterward there was a reception and I was able to meet the musicians and talk to them a little about their instruments and their future plans. And I had my share of Cheez Whiz sandwiches (officially known as "pimiento cheese spread"). That's the small-town touch!

The concert was presented at the Blacksburg Unitarian Universalist Congregation on Sunday March 25, 2018, as the final performance of the 2017-2018 season of Musica Viva of Southwestern Virginia.


March 29, 2018 at 12:52 PM · A sudden deep snow seems to bring out the best audience. And perhaps inspires the best from the performer as well. I remember one winter in Cleveland, along the Lake Erie. Shore, many years ago, a performance by a well known violinist of Bach solo works was scheduled at the Cleveland Institute of Music. It snowed all day and by evening about 2 feet had fallen. I drove my ancient VW Beetle with snow tires to the Institute. The audience filled the small auditorium over half way full. The performer prefaced his performance with remarks to the effect that only true music lovers would show up on such a bitter January night and he would do his best to reward us. The silence of the audience during the performance was absolute, then the thunder of applause, shouts of bravissimo. Encore followed encore, not little twinkle-twinkle pieces but real meat. I think it was after the fourth encore that the performer seemed to have given up, but the audience had not. That’s when the synchronized rhythmic foot stomping began like in the old days in Moscow. Finally the fifth and final encore began. Ysaye Ballade. How much stamina could we expect from one performer? During an especially spirited bariolage passage the bow shot straight up into the air about 3 feet! He somehow managed to catch it on its way back down and rejoined the piece at a later passage. The audience realized that the performance was finally over, applauded respectfully and made our way out back into the Cleveland blizzard.

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