An ancient Chinese proverb promises that an invisible thread connects people who are destined to meet, regardless of places lived, time apart or circumstances suffered. The thread may warp or snarl or snag, but it will never break. What better material for that thread than the strings of a musical instrument?
Formed in 1992, the Arianna String Quartet — cellist Kurt Baldwin, violist Joanna Mendoza and violinists John McGrosso and Julia Sakharova — is one of the finest things to come out of St. Louis since jazz and barbecue. They’re playing in Ojai as part of the Chamber on the Mountain concert series, itself celebrating a fifth season of bringing some of the most worthwhile and moving works of classical music to the area. This time, the quartet is accompanied by celebrated pianist Michele Levin for a program that includes “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue (BWV 903)” by Johann Sebastian Bach, “String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters” by Leoš Janácek and the “Piano Quintet in F minor, Op. 34” by Johannes Brahms. The audience is welcome to stay and meet the artists at a reception following the performance.
There’s a thread running through the music the quartet interprets.
You can hear it in the recent album Beethoven: The Middle Quartets. Written on the cusp of Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna — during which an isolated Beethoven stayed behind in an increasingly ruined city — these middle quartets display at once a technical proficiency and an emotional maturity striving to understand the composer in all phases of his moods. The players understand the terror and the ecstasy Beethoven must have experienced in those moments, alone and driven, embracing all the beauty of life that music affords us, even under the shadow of the specter of imminent annihilation.
In 25 years of performing as a quartet, the musicians have traveled many miles and shared many life experiences. Their habit of choosing pieces of classical music that are technically demanding, as well as necessitating access to a deep wellspring of emotional complexity, makes this an ensemble that challenges its audience as well as the players’ own talents. It is that give-and-take that imbues the performances with these rare moments of connection — a thread that passes from the composer through the musicians and out to the audience, a cycle of energy transmuting creativity to empathy, weaving the golden thread of the human condition in all its wonder and splendor. Having traveled to every continent except Antarctica, uniting audiences in the universal language of music, the Arianna String Quartet represents the hope that music brings with it.
Pianist Levin joins the performance, and will play “Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue.” Originally written for harpsichord, the piece’s cascading shower of notes lends itself well to Levin’s masterful playing, and all performers will necessarily be perfectly synchronized to unveil the beauty of Bach’s masterwork.
It’s one of those pieces that demands attention and concentration — as much from the listener as it does from the performer — but its rewards of exhilaration and excitement are well worth the experience of listening to something that might be unfamiliar to audiences used to the usual litany of hits from Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
Note that this is not a recital. A recital — where the music is played perfunctorily, perfectly and with no deviation from the black musical notes on the white page — isn’t what the Arianna String Quartet does. This is not a performance that is serviceable, adequate and workmanlike. The musicians play to celebrate the greatness of the music and project it through the lenses of their individual selves until the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Beautiful as it is, the music is inert art unless it has interpreters like these to bring the totality of its beauty into the light. To play it for audiences and summon up that great and fleeting moment when, through art, we are all connected and lifted up as one.
Chamber on the Mountain concert series featuring the Arianna String Quartet and Michele Levin takes place on Sunday, Dec. 3, at 3 p.m. at the Logan House (adjacent to the Beatrice Wood Center for the Arts) at 8585 Ojai-Santa Paula Road. For tickets and more information, call 646-9951 or visit www.chamberonthemountain.com.