MUSIC REVIEW : American String Quartet Plays ‘Degenerate’ Works : Bing Theater concert complements ‘The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany’ exhibition at County Museum of Art.


In presenting German Expressionist art in context of the great tragedy of its fate in Nazi Germany, a given work can certainly be illuminated and enhanced when framed by the overwhelming sentiment of that time. But a picture should still be more interesting than its frame.

Wednesday evening at County Museum’s Bing Theater, the first of two musical events there complementing the exhibition entitled “ ‘Degenerate Art’: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” took place. On hand was the American String Quartet presenting four works by composers who fell afoul of the Nazis in the 1930s.

With its recently appointed first violinist, Peter Winograd, along with veteran members Laurie Carney, violin, Daniel Avshalomov, viola and David Geber, cello, the ensemble of Juilliard alumni demonstrated that they are competent musicians, though not particularly exciting when performing the music of Schoenberg and Webern.


No doubt the program was an interesting idea, to which the unusually large amount of listeners who braved the rainy weather might attest. The players could also not be faulted for ineptitude or lack of preparation as they presented each note of each piece with skill and dexterity.

But missing was a spirited spark that might have ignited less routine readings. These compositions need a broader spectrum of emotions and moods than were presented with here.

For example, the carefully placed nuances and painstakingly honed phrases of Webern’s diminutive String Quartet, Opus 28 (1936-8), demand a special concentration from the listener.

Yet this performance never achieved the tautness or pensiveness required. Awkward moments occured when players continually represented silent upbeats with audible inhaled bursts of air.

Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 (1927) suffered similarly, proceeding without the emotional crests and troughs that make his music so characteristically vital and penetrating. The forward motion tended to sag instead of drive as is necessary.

Completing the program were two other third string quartets by composers of the time: Hindemith’s Opus 30 (1927) and the final composition by a former pupil of Schoenberg, Viktor Ullmann. Completed at Theresienstadt, before Ullmann was transported to Auschwitz where he died around 1944, this late-Romantic work finds some moments of genuine invention, though not as bold a departure from traditional classical forms and harmony as one might expect from a “degenerate” artist.

A warm-up performance of the Hindemith opened the evening. Bustling audience members who applauded after every movement may have contributed to a general lack of concentration here.