By Lawrence Budmen

Dimitri Shostakovich dedicated his "String Quartet No.8 in C Minor" to "the victims of fascist oppression." Yet this score is highly personal. While he was the leading composer of the Soviet revolution, Shostakovich suffered under the rule of the Communist apparatchiks (particularly during the Stalinist era). Although his music was acclaimed worldwide, the composer was twice denounced (by Soviet official Gennady Zhadanov and composer Tikhon Khrenikov) as "a decadent formalist" susceptible to influences alien to the Revolution. His music was unofficially banned. Shostakovich would return and eventually be the recipient of the Lenin Medal. (It would be difficult to imagine 20th century Russian art without his creative genius.) This personal history and the suffering of the Russian people in World War 2 find musical voice in his 8th String Quartet. This powerful work formed the centerpiece of the opening concert of the Mainly Mozart Festival 2004 on May 9, 2004 at the Omni Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida, USA (presented by the Coral Gables Cultural Affairs Council) - one of two valedictory performances by the Miami String Quartet. 

Shostakovich's friend the Russian composer Rodion Shchedrin wrote a 1999 orchestral score "Conversations With Shostakovich." The composer described the harsh brass and percussion interruptions in that work as "portraits of evil men." So too are the harsh, relentless string chords in the first Largo of Shostakovich's 8th Quartet - musical impressions of the KGB or Stalinist authorities. The Allegro movement has a driven, terse quality that is almost frightening. The Allegretto movement begins with the opening theme of Shostakovich's "Cello Concerto No.1." Soon that ironic theme disintegrates into nightmarish chaos verging on atonality. The final Largo is music of total hopelessness and desolation that finally fades away into silence. This score is one of Shostakovich's most powerful, emotionally wrenching works. The 15 string quartets of Shostakovich are the most important works in this genre since the quartets of Beethoven. The 8th Quartet seems to conjure up feelings of pain and fear from deep within the composer's soul. This score is one of the great works of Russian art and one of the 20th century's bona fide musical masterpieces.

The Miami String Quartet (which is about to become ensemble-in-residence at Kent State University in Ohio) gave this bitter, fiercely original score a brilliant, emotionally compelling performance. They did not attempt to sugar coat the astringency of Shostakovich's musical idiom or soften the score's artistic pessimism (as some visiting ensembles have done). The rich depth of tone of Chauncey Patterson's viola added poignancy to this tragic score. The vigorous attack of Ivan Chan's violin brought the composer's intensity of utterance to a boiling point. The power of those terrible, crashing string chords was almost unbearable. Violinist Cathy Meg Robinson's intense solo in the final, tragic movement was powerful and riveting. The sheer intensity and expressiveness of the Miami Quartet's performance were overwhelming! A searing performance of a truly original masterpiece!

By contrast the quartet brought sweetness and warmth to Johannes Brahms's "String Quartet in C Minor," Opus 51, No.1. As Mainly Mozart Festival artistic director Frank Cooper pointed out, Brahms destroyed as many as 20 string quartets before he allowed this one to be published. Brahms was a relentless perfectionist who was deeply aware of writing in the shadow of Beethoven. His C Minor Quartet is richly romantic with a font of great melody as only Brahms could produce. Keith Robinson's cello solo in the Romanza: Poco Adagio was aglow in rich, darkly burnished tone. The superb ensemble and glowing tone of the Miami foursome brought a ravishing ardor and romantic affirmation to this beautiful movement that was the high point of a memorable performance. Chan's fierce power in the opening Allegro kept the performance lilting - borne aloft on wings of song. The passion of the Allegretto poco moderato e comodo was never allowed to become overly sentimental. The performance had a natural, joyous flow that was an aural delight. The spirited rendition of the Allegro finale capped a wonderfully idiomatic, loving performance. The music resounded anew as if it were being heard for the first time. A dedicated, wonderfully subtle performance of a chamber music landmark!

Even Hugo Wolf's "Italian Serenade" was given a fresh, electrifying interpretation. Instead of the usual light hearted romp, this performance found power and emotional resonance in the music. Chan's intense, slightly wiry tone gave Wolf's score a sense of tension and energy. Beneath the score's outward Mediterranean light, the quartet found inner turmoil and menacing clouds. An edgy, intense deconstruction of a familiar score - a small scale musical revelation!

The Miami String Quartet has given South Florida a legacy of great music making. Their revelatory Brahms and Wolf and their superlative interpretation of Shostakovich's visionary masterpiece were performances to treasure! An unforgettable concert and a great opening for the 11th Mainly Mozart Festival! 

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