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YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE: Czech string quarter to perform in Hilo

It is always good to hear Czech music played by Czech musicians, and when they are as internationally recognized as the Zemlinsky String Quartet, the concert is bound to be exceptional.

The youthful but experienced quartet will perform the second concert of the Hawaii Concert Society’s 2015-16 season at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 20) at the University of Hawaii at Hilo Performing Arts Center. The concert will include music by Czech composers Jiri Gemrot and Antonin Dvorak, as well as Ludwig van Beethoven.

The quartet was founded in 1994 by four young Czech musicians. First violinist Frantisek Soucek, violist Petr Holman, second violinist Petr Strizek and cellist Vladimir Fortin were barely teenagers when they committed to the life of a professional ensemble.

Now 21 years later, the members of that quartet are the same, although the name of the group changed from the rather staid Penguin Quartet (based on their dress code) to that of the early 20th century composer, conductor and teacher Alexander Zemlinsky, who made a profound contribution to Czech, German and Jewish culture during his 16-year stay in Prague.

Although the average age of its members is 35, the Zemlinsky String Quartet has captured the classical music world’s attention for some time. It has won or placed highly in a string of competitions for chamber groups. In 2010, the quartet captured the grand prize in the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition, perhaps the most prestigious such competition in Europe.

The quartet plays regularly in the Czech Republic and throughout Europe, and also has performed in North and South America and the Far East. The Hilo concert is part of a three-concert tour of the Hawaiian Islands.

The Zemlinsky musicians have strong opinions not only about how they perform, but also how they appear when they perform.

Holman put it thusly: “The audience is influenced by the way the musicians play, and if it just looks boring, then it might not get the highest appreciation from the listeners, even if it was technically perfect.”

Music critics have noticed members’ appearance in concert, one writing, “Here was a group that played as one — visibly as much as audibly — and expressed a unanimity of purpose.”

And audiences have, too.

Even when the quartet did not win the first prize at the 2006 London International String Competition, it was the favorite of the attendees, which awarded it the Audience Prize.

The Hilo concert will open with modern Czech composer Jiri Gemrot’s “Quartet No. 4.” Gemrot stated his musical intention always is “to fuse musical styles, uniting past and present.”

It is not often music can be considered happy, but Dvorak’s second quartet, known as the “American,” which will follow the Germrot piece, seems to be just that. It was written during a three-year stay in the U.S., specifically while the composer was spending the summer in the quiet village of Spillville, Iowa, which was home to a Czech immigrant community.

The specific American qualities of the “American” quartet are not easily identifiable. Some listeners have tried to identify American motifs in it. Some have claimed the theme of the second movement is based on an African-American spiritual, or perhaps on a Kickapoo Indian tune Dvorak heard during his stay in Spillville.

Dvorak’s appreciation of African-American music is well documented and is at the core of the second movement of one of his greatest works, the “New World Symphony.” He himself said: “In the Negro melodies of America, I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music.”

The concert will conclude with Beethoven’s “Quartet Opus 127,” the first of what are known as his “late quartets.” Written in the final years of his life, these quartets transcend anything Beethoven or anyone else had ever composed. Opinion has changed considerably from the time of their first bewildered reception. This profoundly personal music is intensely moving, highly intelligent and almost avante-garde in places. Even now, many of us can do little more than let the music sweep over us.

Tickets for the concert are $25 general admission, $20 for seniors and $12 for students and are available at the Most Irresistible Shop, Music Exchange, the East Hawaii Cultural Center and the UH-Hilo Performing Arts Center box office. Remaining tickets will be sold at the door, starting at 6:45 p.m.


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