Elias String Quartet performs in the Chapel

On Feb. 3 in the Lawrence Memorial Chapel, the internationally-acclaimed Elias String Quartet performed three pieces in distinctly different styles for a crowd of enthusiastic Lawrentians and Appleton residents. Founded in 1998, the quartet is based in London; its players are from France, Scotland and Sweden.

From the moment they walked onstage, the four musicians displayed confidence and sophistication. The two sisters Sara and Marie Bitlloch, violinist and cellist, were followed by Donald Grant, violinist, and Martin Saving, cellist.

The quartet started playing right away. The first piece was Beethoven’s “String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95.” During the fiery and aggressive opening notes, it was already obvious that these musicians are serious about their art. As they continued, they felt every subdivision and musical shape together.

Every ensemble has slightly different ways of engaging in musicianship, and the Elias Quartet seemed to be interested in equal division of leadership roles. Each player took his or her turn cuing, breathing, lifting and leaning to pull the group along. Often, they did not rely on one person’s cue but rather looked at each other and coordinated phrases instinctually.

After the Beethoven, Sara Bitlloch stood to speak about the upcoming “Moments Musicaux for String Quartet, Op. 44” by György Kurtág, a modern composer born in 1926. The quartet had met and worked with Kurtág, carefully fine-tuning different aspects of the performance until they met his high standards. “Sometimes we’ve spent one hour on three notes,” Sara said, “trying to make the exact character he wants.” She gave the audience a primer on the structure and ideas of the piece, which is a good idea when playing contemporary music. Each of the six two-minute movements of the piece has a completely different character and image it was designed to convey.

Highlights include the first movement, “Invocazione,” a call to the muses. Each instrument cries out, one bow stroke setting of a chain reaction of others. The second movement, “Passi,” is all about “waiting for someone’s footsteps.” Here the cello and viola imitated the sounds of someone creeping through the darkness. The fourth movement, “In memoriam György Sebök,” features dirge-like slow strokes on the upper strings, while the cello plays the role of a “transcendental figure rising from darkness,” which perhaps represents Sebök. The quartet members each acted out their roles with energy appropriate to the tone of the music. Again, they showed off their ability to coordinate complicated sounds effortlessly.

The members The Elias String Quartet may be from all around Europe, but they have 13 years’ experience playing together. They know how to make a strong first impression and carry it through the entire performance. Their concert at Lawrence was part of a February tour of the United States. In March, they will head to the Netherlands for a separate concert series.