Quartet to climb 'musical Everest'

2013-05-30T00:00:00Z Quartet to climb 'musical Everest'Cathalena E. Burch Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

St. Andrew's Bach Society kicks off its 25th season on Sunday with a concert that Artistic Director Ben Nisbet describes as climbing "a musical Everest."

Nisbet's Kingfisher String Quartet will perform three Beethoven string quartets, one from each of Beethoven's compositional periods.

It's something you rarely get to experience in one sitting.

"Typically, you will see people only do two ... because it's just considered to be extremely difficult to try to do three Beethoven string quartets, one from each of his stylistic periods," Nisbet said. "It's just very difficult. It's a titanic challenge."

But we are used to the Bach Society taking on titanic challenges. In 2008, the summertime classical-music series mounted Bach's choral masterpiece Mass in B minor. The next summer, violinist Steven Moeckel, accompanied by pianist Paula Fan, tackled Beethoven's complete sonata cycle over three days. Moeckel returned in the 2011 series to perform Bach's solo violin sonatas and partitas over two nights.

"The Bach Society series has been known to feature these ambitious projects," Nisbet said. "These kinds of audacious and ambitious things are what help us keep the series fresh and exciting in the summer."

The Bach quartets easily fit into that category.

The Kingfisher - violinists Nisbet and Ellen Chamberlain, violist Emma Noël Votapek and cellist Anne Gratz - will traverse Beethoven's composing life, starting with his Quartet No. 3, penned during his early period. Expect to hear tuneful melodies and strong classical nods.

Quartet No. 8 visits Beethoven in the middle period - often called his Heroic period - which is when he composed his monumental Fifth Symphony and developed the bombastic, rich sound that we so closely associate with him.

The concert-closing Quartet No. 14 will prove to be the afternoon's biggest challenge, Nisbet said.

"The 14 is itself known by many, many people as being a musical Everest alone, without putting two other quartets on the same concert," Nisbet said.

Beethoven composed the quartet during the end of his life, when his hearing was gone and he had crawled into himself, breaking off most contact with the world outside.

"The musical language that he's using is different. It's a little bit more challenging for the performers, and it's a lot more complex than what he had done before. He really breaks away from the conventions of the string quartet," Nisbet explained.

The 14th ditches the conventional four-movement form and is composed as seven uninterrupted movements.

"Each movement has its own completely distinct character. The performers have to not only be able to technically carry off the demands of the music, but they have to be able to convey the really unique characteristics of each of those seven movements as they go from one to the next," Nisbet said.

Sunday's concert also marks the fifth anniversary of the Kingfisher, which made its debut in the 2008 St. Andrew's Bach Society series.

"We have always prided ourselves on being ambitious with the things that we do. This seemed like the most logical thing to do as far as challenging ourselves," Nisbet said.

If you go

•What: St. Andrew's Bach Society presents the Kingfisher String Quartet in concert.

• When: 2 p.m. Sunday.

• Where: Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 2331 E. Adams St.

• Tickets: $12 for adults, $5 for students in advance at www.standrewsbach.org or at the door.

• Program: Beethoven's String Quartets No. 3 in D major, No. 8 in E minor and No. 14 in C-sharp minor.

• Details: 808-2122.

Contact reporter Cathalena E. Burch at cburch@azstarnet.com or 573-4642.

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