Beethoven and Bartok Up Close

heath2Imagine it is the bleakest hours of World War I, and you are traveling through Algeria with brilliant Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, sitting at an outdoor café, drinking black coffee that makes your hair stand at attention, and listening to local folk music that will put mojo in the second movement in our man Béla’s Quartet No. 2, opus 17. I’m not kidding, that’s what it felt like listening to the award-winning Heath Quartet, last weekend’s “Music for a Sunday Afternoon” offering in Ragle Hall. Okay, it didn’t hurt that yours truly was sitting right on stage, just a café table away from these champions of chamber music.

heath3cAhem, let me explain. This was the debut U.S. appearance of the Heath Quartet, a young ensemble that has rocked houses all over Europe with crazy names like Sage Gateshead, the Musikverein, Vara Konserthus, and the Kissingen Winterzauber and Spitalfields festivals. They’ve won more awards than you can shake a baton at, including the 2012 Royal Philharmonic Society Young Artists Award and the 2012 Festspiel Mecklenburg-Vorpommern Ensemble Prize. I mean, they are like rock stars of the chamber music world. Their Marlboro premier launches a U.S. debut tour that includes the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, and Weill Recital Hall presented by Carnegie Hall.

heath3The reason they started at li’l ol’ Marlboro is that retired sociology professor Jerry Levy is an absolute groupie. He saw them perform in England last year, and followed them all over Europe to see them again and again and again, kind of like Phish but without the “super-extended grooves.” He parted oceans like Moses to bring them here to Ragle, then moved mountains like the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to let people know they were here. In the end, this included moving chairs around to accommodate the absolute overflow crowd on Sunday, for which Jerry received a hearty round of applause. Because I was one of the fashionably last people to squeeze through the door, I got seated in the ring of seats on stage, behind the quartet.

heath4bOkay, I admit it, the first thrill was having a packed house watching the stage (including yours truly) with rapt attention, and clapping like maniacs as the ensemble took their seats. But as soon as the musicians all chimed in with the lively Allegro con brio from Beethoven’s Quartet in B Flat No. 6, opus 18, all self consciousness flew out the window and I was transfixed by the music that was so close, so close to me. My heart was pounding to the rhythm of the music, and as each phrase was carried from cello to viola to violin, and on and on, I felt like they were coursing through my veins. I was so close that I was driven absolutely mad by a loose hair on the bow of violinist Cerys Jones, and was tempted to lean forward and nip it off during a pause. That probably wouldn’t have gone over too well, but by the time the Heath Quartet had rocked their way through Beethoven, Bartok, and Mendelssohn, I totally felt like a roadie for the band.