Still at the top of their game, Orion Quartet gives a memorable swan song at Wolf Trap

Mon Nov 20, 2023 at 12:43 pm

Now in their final season, the Orion String Quartet performed at Wolf Trap on Sunday. Photo: A. E. Landes

The Orion String Quartet, which formed in 1987 and has maintained its current lineup since 1993, stopped at The Barns at Wolf Trap on Sunday afternoon for its final Washington-area performance; the much-decorated quartet will disband at the close of the 2023-24 concert season. 

Violinists (and brothers) Daniel Phillips and Todd Phillips, violist Steven Tenenbom, and cellist Timothy Eddy made Sunday’s concert into a celebration of the transcendence that can happen when four skilled musicians play with near-telepathic communication and common purpose.

From the opening of Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 33, no. 3, nicknamed “The Bird,” the Orion nailed Haydn style: deft, spirited, graceful, balancing all elements to make a harmonious whole. The opening birdsong-like figurations that came from Daniel Phillips’ violin led to a development section that suddenly wanders off into harmonic instability, expertly limned here. The second movement frames another section of avian music, tweeted back and forth merrily between the Phillipses, with gorgeous, solemn music that belies the movement’s Scherzo marking; the quartet wrung just enough emotion, so that the bird-like interlude didn’t sound totally incongruous.

After more warm, lyrical playing in the succeeding Adagio, the Presto finale exploded with energy, with the Orion throwing themselves into the frenetic main theme and a rowdy gypsy interlude. They only lost control when Haydn told them to, as the music seems to evaporate in the coda—a joke well told.

Beethoven’s final String Quartet in F major, Op. 135, is often said to be a throwback to Haydn’s style. On Sunday, the juxtaposition with “The Bird” showed how much more often Beethoven left jagged edges and outbursts for the listener to figure out whereas Haydn goes far afield but resolves the oddities. Still, the Orion performance on Sunday had similar virtues to their Haydn: clean, unanimous playing that (in this case) put the weirdness of Beethoven into stark relief without having to pound the idea home.

The Lento assai third movement, so reminiscent of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Op. 130, here shimmered with shifting emotions as the music reached its choked minor-key climax before the balm of major entered again. The Orion made the blistering minor chords that open the finale (marked “The Difficult Decision”) feel like anguished screams, and the spectre of that outburst hung over the otherwise joyful finale, especially after their reprise.

The first movement of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15, D. 887, can be a tough nut to crack; it’s long and flickers between the major and minor modes so frequently that it feels uncentered, and it doesn’t have the usual memorable Schubert tunes. On Sunday, the Orion String Quartet patiently built up its architecture and found a through-line of emotion to make it compelling.

In the second movement, cellist Eddy handled the wistful main melody with impeccable tone and style, broken up by brutal minor-key remonstrations that, on this program, echoed those in the Beethoven quartet’s finale, casting a shadow over the rest of the movement. The Scherzo simmered with tension, and the Orion rode the galloping melody of the finale with scintillating rhythm and forward momentum to its unexpected major-key close, with colorful detours along the way. The Orion String Quartet will be missed, but at least on Sunday they gave us a concert to remember.

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