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September - October

Through the Looking Glass

String Quartet Op.33 No.2 in E-flat major, "The Joke"           Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809)

Allegro moderato
Scherzando. Allegro - Trio
Largo sostenuto
Finale. Presto

Entr’acte                                                                                                    Caroline Shaw (b. 1982)



String Quartet No.1 in B-minor, Op.50                                         Sergei Prokofiev (1891 – 1953)

Andante molto - Vivace

Sunday, September 30 - 2:00pm in Lexington
Friday, October 5 - 7:00pm in Quincy
Thursday, October 18 - 7:00pm in Newton
Saturday, October 20 - 2:00pm in Medford
Sunday, October 21 - 2:00pm in Quincy
Thursday, October 25 - 7:00pm in Jamaica Plain

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In 1779 Haydn’s contract with his lifetime supporter and patron, prince Nikolaus Esterházy, has been radically renegotiated. For the first time in his career the composer was now completely in charge of his creations and was free to seek commissions and publish outside of his employer’s domain. With this newfound freedom came a radical shift in Haydn’s interests. No longer obliged to align his output with the interests of his patron, centered mostly on opera at the time, Haydn plunged into composing instrumental music. It has been almost 10 years since he last composed string quartets, and as Haydn came up with this new set in 1881 he had all the reasons to claim that they were composed in a “new and special” manner. The dedication to the future Emperor Paul I of Russia didn’t seem to have brought any loftiness or pomp into these lively pieces, if anything the lessons from years of writing comic opera are apparent in all six quartets, but especially in the second one aptly subtitled “The Joke.” The quick rhythmic pace and rapid gear changes, masterfully transposed from the comic opera style to the quartet, are ever on display at no point disturbing the integrity of the movements. Incredibly with such an approach Haydn gained a layer of subtlety and depth in lyrical passages, just as humor and joviality permeate the rest of the work, most apparent in the last movement which seems to refuse to come to an end time and again.

In her own notes about Entr’acte Caroline Shaw refers to the Haydn quartet op.77 No.2 that inspired the work: “I love the way some music (like the minuets of Op. 77) suddenly takes you to the other side of Alice’s looking glass, in a kind of absurd, subtle, technicolor transition.” A master at fusing the popular music style with the stringent demands of string quartet writing, Caroline Shaw carries Haydn’s torch with uncanny ease. Tongue in cheek playfulness, unbound capacity for surprise and sincere soulfulness all coexist rather comfortably in this single-movement work, ending with a meditative guitar-like cello solo.


The Library of Congress couldn’t have commissioned Prokofiev to write a string quartet at a better time. After decades of being in the forefront of the 20th century avant-garde movement and rightfully earning his reputation of “enfant terrible,” Prokofiev decided that a shift in direction was necessary. Less emphasis on complexity, more on lyricism and depth, though not letting go of an iota of his usual inventiveness! Long in the making, this change in style is now obvious in the B-minor string quartet, a genre normally too traditional for an avant-garde composer. Nevertheless he makes his first step into the notoriously challenging medium with astounding confidence - the hours poring over scores to Beethoven string quartets during long railroad trips while on tour must have paid off! While the great composer’s influence is often apparent, this piece is quite far from being a tribute. Prokofiev’s trademark acrobatic part-writing is at its best, as is his refreshing lyricism and boundless inventive spirit. Breaking with the long established tradition of energetic finales, the piece ends with a slow movement, melancholy and poignant, a daring move that surprised and puzzled his audience and yet fits naturally with the overall structure of the piece.

- Alexander Vavilov

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