The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music review: The Ancora and Rhapsodie String Quartets show deep collegiality in performing outstanding Mendelssohn and Prokofiev. | May 24, 2012

A REMINDER: Tonight at 7 p.m. in The Playhouse of the Overture Center, the Rhapsodie String Quartet (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), which is made up of members of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, will perform a FREE concert of Haydn’s “Emperor” String Quartet in C major, Op. 76, No. 3, and Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 51. No admission will be charged, but freewill donations are welcome at the door.

By Jacob Stockinger

Collegiality is the hallmark of great chamber music-making.

If you doubt that, all you had to do was be at the performance of the Ancora String Quartet (below) as it closed its 11th season last Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House with performances of Prokofiev and Mendelssohn.

The Ancora consists of violinists Leanne Kelso League and Robin Ryan; violist Marika Fischer Hoyt; and cellist Benjamin Whitcomb. The ensemble remains artists-in-residence at the First Unitarian Society where music director Dan Broner continues to leave his mark with the weekly free Friday Noon Musicales, the all-music Sundays and sponsorship of the Ancora as well as other musical events.

Two works made up the Ancora concert.

The first was Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 1 in B minor, Op. 50, from 1930. The second quartet by Prokofiev (below) is the more famous and more easily listenable of the two since it is based on folk themes and has a sprightly sense of rhythm and melody – a very Mozartean or Haydnesque lightness for Soviet Russia compared to the unrelenting darkness and heaviness of his contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich.

But in the hands of the Ancora, the more “composed” first quartet revealed its many charms. Its unconventional structure of two fast movements followed by a slow movement showed how Prokofiev played with expectations. And for all his percussiveness and angular modernism, you find a looking backwards quality – a transparency and lyricism — to Prokofiev. The Ancora brought out the motivic qualities of the piece, ending with the tuneful quality of the song-like last movement, with its quiet ending.

A work that can seem daunting seemed thoroughly prepared and executed in such as way as to make it welcoming and accessible.

For most listeners, surely the highlight of the concert was Mendelssohn’s Octet from 1825. Written when the composer (below) was only 16, it was and remains one of the miracles of Western classical music. It conveys infectious energy right from the opening measures and continues that energy until the end. Especially the typical Mendelssohn signature – a cat-like Scherzo — was both charming and impressive. The fleet lightness sounded so easy when it is really so hard.

But talk about collegiality.

The Rhapsodie Quartet (below, in a photo by Greg Anderson), which is made up of members from the Madison Symphony Orchestra: violinists Suzanne Beia and Laura Burns, violist Christopher Dozoryst and cellist Karl Lavine – proved a hand-and-glove match for the Ancora. Two groups blended tightly and seemed as one, even as the as score calls for competing voices and certain kind of virtuosic competition.

The Ancora and Rhapsodie quartets emphasized the unity of the piece, the way Mendelssohn –who so admired the music of J.S. Bach – stitched together these four various movement into a seamless fabric.

But the most outstanding quality was the sheer boundless energy, the youth exuberance, that the two groups brought to this irresistible work. Once again, the Octet worked its magic.

It was a brilliant program that was brilliantly executed.

The only problem was the venue. Historic or not, landmark or not, the auditorium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is uncomfortable because of its seats – those awful lower back-breaking benches Wright designed – and because there was no air conditioning on a 90 degree day.

Indeed, at one point, a breeze from the open door blew the music right off the stands and the musicians had to start again.

But in another testament to collegiality and informality, the Ancora players just picked up and carried on in good humor with the audience of 50 or so — it was UW commencement weekend, after all – taking their cue and remaining with the quartet all the way.

The Era has often remarked on what a rich classical music scene Madison has. Just think of the outstanding string quartets you find in the area: there is the Pro Arte, the Ancora, the Rhapsodie, the Roundtree, the Mifflin and the Oakwood Chamber Players and others that escape me at the moment.

Anyway, here is what another review – no less enthusiastic by John W. Barker of Isthmus — had to say about the Ancora, which just keeps getting better and better in its playing as well as more ambitious and original in its programming:

For more information about the quartet and how its next season is taking shape, visit or follow it on Facebook at


  1. We heard the Saturday night recital, sitting maybe ten feet from the performers. The energy of the Octet… the music and the performers…uplifted our spirits as music so often does and also energized a bat that flew around the Lloyd-Wright rafters.
    A. Yocom

    Comment by Anders Yocom — May 24, 2012 @ 10:24 am

  2. A memorable concert indeed– and a perceptive review.

    Comment by westmelrose — May 24, 2012 @ 6:59 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

    Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,268 other followers

    Blog Stats

    • 2,373,581 hits
%d bloggers like this: