Chamber Music Scores 

The perfect antidote to the summer doldrums

After emerging from my usual brief spell of post-Spoleto hibernation, that pesky old itch that only well-played live classical music can scratch got to tormenting me yet again. Lord knows there's enough of that to keep me hopping during the regular season — but what's a classical junky to do in the middle of summer? So color me happy when I got wind of Chamber Music Charleston's Tuesday evening string quartet program at the Old Exchange Building.

Late-afternoon thundershowers and scarce parking made for damp going, but the music was worth getting wet for — especially as played by this remarkable foursome. Two of the Charleston Symphony's most gifted fiddlers shared lead violin honors: principal second violin Alan Molina alternated with Megan Allison, New Zealand's main musical gift to Charleston. Dynamite violist-at-large Gretchen Frazier (Full disclosure: Frazier is married to John Stoehr, CCP's arts editor) and the CSO's ever-dependable Tim O'Malley on cello rounded out an ensemble that sounded like they'd been playing together all their lives.

Kicking the evening off was a rare treat: Sergei Prokofiev's lusty and engaging String Quartet in F Major, Op. 92. Based on folk-themes the composer absorbed during a vacation to Russia's Caspian Sea region, the piece — properly played — hardly ever loses its earthy peasant feel. Like Bartok, Prokofiev never "prettified" the folk materials he worked with: There was plenty of dissonance, plus relentless raw and raucous rhythm. The mournfully lyrical slow movement offered a welcome break. The overall effect was mesmerizing: Molina's smoldering lead violin set the pace and the mood — and Frazier's brusque, yet glowing viola work was a treat.

Wrapping things up was one of my all-time chamber faves: the second of Beethoven's three "Rasumovsky Quartets" of Op. 59 (the one in E minor) — surely among Ludwig's crowning mid-life achievements. The opening Allegro's profound nobility gave way to the slow movement's ecstatic celestial musings, hinting at the fathomless metaphysics to come in the composer's late quartets and piano sonatas. Allison's serene and songful lead violin made it extra special. In the lilting, yet tense scherzo (not listed in the program), O'Malley's sweet-toned cello was especially ravishing.

The capacity crowd was more than delighted. With musicians like these among us year-round, I thank my lucky stars yet again for the blessing of living and listening in Charleston.

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