Tokyo quartet plays with unity, passion

Times Staff Writer

The Tokyo String Quartet came to the Southland on Wednesday with a new first violinist and a new work. The first bit of news can cause undue concern.

A quartet is a complicated ensemble that consists at different moments of various solos, duos and trios, as well as being a single group that may shift emphasis among its players. One misstep causes a tremor; a shift in personnel is an earthquake.

In fact, the quartet, in its three-part program of Haydn, Brahms and Joan Tower in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, sounded as lustrous and unified as ever.

Canadian violinist Martin Beaver replaced Mikhail Kopelman, who departed in June following what was called an amicable divorce over artistic differences. Beaver already fits right in with the hallmark finely balanced sound of his colleagues -- violinist Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura and cellist Clive Greensmith -- and their subordination of individual ego to the composer.

The new work -- Joan Tower's Quartet No. 2, "In Memory" -- had the audience stomping its feet as well as clapping its hands. Begun as a memorial to a recently deceased friend, the work took on extra dimension as the composer learned of the tragedies of Sept. 11. The single-movement work, written for the Tokyo quartet, expresses with directness and power her grief and anger.

Haydn's Quartet in F minor, Opus 20, No. 5, and Brahms' Piano Quintet, also in F minor, were passionate and serious.

Pianist Max Levinson joined the ensemble for Brahms, contributing to the performance's blazing intensity. A former Angeleno, he is heard locally far too rarely.

One of the best things about this performance of Haydn's quartet, which reveals depths in the composer not often on view, was a sense of its organic unity. The slow movement, for instance, was not a respite from conflict but expressed the serenity that follows the triumph over it.

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