July 25, 2021 was a beautiful summer evening, perfect for a concert by the Chicago Phil in-person event featuring two violins, a viola and a cello, a string quartet. Seated in a chair the I brought so I could share a square with my friend in the parking lot of the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in Skokie, I looked around to see people enjoying meals they brought along in coolers, shopping carts or just bags. There was a booth that offered limited drinks and snacks. Everyone was happy to be out.
This was Backlot Beethoven and featured Rika Seko violin, Helen Kim Leeviolin, Rebecca Swanviola, Wei Liu Dentoncello.
The music program included works by Ludwig van Beethoven String Quartet No. 13, Mvmt. II, IV, V, Béla Bartók String Quartet No. 2, Mvmt. II, Antonín Dvořák String Quartet No. 12, American Quartet, and Jessie Montgomery Strum.
The program notes, written by violinist Helen Kim Lee, were made available on our phones via an app and it was pleasant to read about the works as they were played, and not disturb anyone.
The beautiful strains of the string quartet began with the work of Jessie Montgomery,s Strum the only woman and the only contemporary composer whose work was on the program. Montgomery describes her music as a cross-section between “classical music with elements of vernacular music, improvisation, language and social justice.” She says: “Music is my connection to the world. It guides me to understand my place in relation to others and challenges me to make clear the things I do not understand. I imagine that music is a meeting place at which all people can converse about their unique differences and common stories.”
Of the Ludwig van BeethovenString Quartet, Op.130, the notes stated, “The string quartet, from which you will hear three movements, is the 13th of 16 quartets written by Beethoven. This quartet, usually identified by its opus number 130, was composed in 1825, during his late period. In these last few years of his life, he composed five string quartets including this one. He was in failing health, bedridden for almost a month during this time. The final movement of the String Quartet Op.130 was the last piece he wrote before he died.”
The first movement was pleasant and almost cheerful. The second movement contrasted somewhat but the third movement was deep and soulful and very moving. The description in the notes is so accurate. “Marked “beklemmt,” meaning heavy of heart and oppressed, the first violin’s line is no longer a continuous melody but broken up, as if gasping for air between feelings of being overwhelmed. The strain does not last too long, but it has left an indelible mark. The initial theme returns with all parts again, slightly altered from the first time, but unified again in thoughtful and deeply felt emotion.’
The third selection Béla Bartók String Quartet No. 2 was a stark contrast to the Beethoven work. Helen Kim Lee again offered insights that enhanced the experience. “Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2, composed during the years 1915-1917, is one of the composer’s six string quartets. This particular quartet stands out as one of the first of his works to demonstrate the compositional voice we have come to identify with Bartók. It is a sound that is hard to categorize – is it tonal or atonal? Is it romantic or modern? Bartók’s voice fused the highly academic training he had in the tradition of western European music, with the love of his country and passionate “discovery” of Hungary’s most native musical idioms.” The versatility and skill of the quartet shone in this piece.
The notes that describe the last work, Antonín Dvořák String Quartet No. 12, arefascinating. Antonín Dvořák’s life was a contrast to the two men whose work preceded his on this evening. Nicknamed the “American,” it is one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire, and is the most well-known Dvořák‘s14 quartets. This quartet was written while he was vacationing in Spillville, a small community of Czech immigrants in the northeast corner of Iowa, place that can still be visited. It is charming to learn that the players, “love its melodies, the lyrical viola line that opens the piece, and the way he portrays playfulness, nostalgia, joy, and longing. This is music that flows easily into our ears, but with much variety between the different movements.” The audience loved this work as well.
The uplifting and lovely evening concluded with an encore of “Chicago” and the audience joined in with “Chicago, Chicago that toddling town
Chicago, Chicago I will show you around
Bet your bottom dollar you have some fun in Chicago, Chicago
The town that Billy Sunday couldn’t shut down”, and so on.
You, too, can enjoy a lovely Sunday afternoon and more with the Chicago Phil. Check the website
Photos are by B. Keer unless otherwise noted.