MUSIC REVIEWS : Mendelssohn Quartet in Pasadena

A healthy curiosity revealed itself in the Mendelssohn String Quartet’s program Sunday at Caltech’s Beckman Auditorium. The ensemble offered a couple of seldom-ventured works by great composers sandwiching a new work by a perhaps undervalued American.

The centerpiece of this Coleman Chamber Concert was Ned Rorem’s 1991 String Quartet No. 3, music that, like much of the soon-to-be 70-year-old composer’s recent chamber music, turns out to be precisely crafted, direct and entertaining and immediately accessible despite its often very dissonant harmonic language.

There are at least two reasons for this. First, Rorem has a talent for melody and is unafraid to use it. He is one of the few modern composers who can write one, stick it in the middle of otherwise modernistically urbane music--as he does here in the second movement Sarabande--and not sound like he’s selling out.

Second, he effectively uses pictorial and simple formal elements in his music (which he spells out in clear-headed program notes). Thus the listener always knows where he’s at, even when in relatively unfriendly contemporary-music terrain.


The Third String Quartet, then, although acerbic and sometimes purposefully grating, is a basically sane work, moving from a mechanistic 12-tone Chaconne, through urgent dances and a strangely melting Dirge, to a brief Epitaph (a song without words depicting a child’s tombstone) and a wild, grinding Dervish finale.

The Mendelssohnians--Ida Levin (soon to depart for a solo career) and Nicholas Mann, violins; Katherine Murdock, viola; Marcy Rosen, cello--played it with poise and controlled energy.

Opening the concert was Mendelssohn’s Andante and Scherzo, Opus 81, two easygoing, quietly poetic movements from an incomplete quartet, played gracefully by the ensemble. It closed with a slightly disappointing run-through of Dvorak’s Quartet, Opus 106, for here, the group’s polished manner and surfaces seemed to compromise the work’s ruggedness and rusticity.