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A for Azmari, Asset for Northern Kentucky University

Mary Ellyn Hutton
Posted: Sep 29, 2006 - 12:00:00 AM in reviews_2006

   The Azmari Quartet, Corbett string quartet-in-residence at Northern Kentucky University since 2003, has turned 180 degrees since the beginning of the year.
Informed in February that their contract would not be renewed due to lack of funding, the quartet was underwritten by the Amernet Society, a group of local chamber music supporters, who pledged $100,000 in annual support to keep them on NKU’s music department masthead.
   Not only that, but this fall they were named principal collaborative ensemble by Cincinnati’s Linton Chamber Music Series. As such, they will perform on two Linton Series concerts this season and participate in Linton’s Peanut Butter and Jam Sessions for youngsters.
   Azmari violinists Christina Merblum and MinTze Wu, violist Meghan Casper and cellist Rebecca Merblum presented their first concert of the season Tuesday evening in NKU’s Greaves Hall. The experience made one applaud the donors who stepped up to the plate to keep them a part of Greater Cincinnati’s music community. Performing for a small but vociferously supportive crowd, the musicians luxuriated in the warmth of their listeners and smiled broadly as they took their bows.
   Their program was thoughtful and balanced, opening with four selections from J.S. Bach’s Art of Fugue and Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 18, No. 3. Crowning work was Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet in G Minor, Op. 57, with NKU pianist and artist-in-residence, Sergei Polusmiak.
   Their Bach, Contrapunctus I, V, XII and IX, was faithful to baroque performance practice, utilizing rapid bow strokes, with little or no vibrato and no hint of romanticism. At the same time, they achieved purity of intonation and precise ensemble, giving Bach’s intricate counterpoint clear definition.
Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 3 fared quite well also, though I would have liked a more relaxed tempo in the lyrical first movement, not only for better focus but to provide greater contrast with the Presto finale.
    Second violinist MinTze Wu produced a warm tone high on the G string to open the dramatic Adagio, and the rapid, slurred eighth-notes in the minor key portion of the third movement flowed with energy. The foursome hit their stride in the frolicsome, chase-your-tail finale. Violist Casper addressed the audience before the Shostakovich, explaining the posthumous assertion (a controversial biography by Solomon Volkov) that Shostakovich used his music to express anti-Soviet views. She and her colleagues instilled some of that into his 1940 quintet, a five-movement work influenced by Bach, but with possible clues toward a deeper meaning.
   First violinist Merblum switched roles with MinTze, who led with great intensity. The entire ensemble joined in an extraordinary performance, forlorn sounding in the Adagio, gleefully percussive in the scherzo and plaintive, but hard-edged in the Lento, which transpired over a seemingly despondent “walking” bass. The finale, with its cocky march-like theme, has never sounded so gutsy.
   Protégés of the famed Vermeer Quartet and currently the area’s only university-based string quartet, the Azmari (Aramaic for “to sing”) is working to “help the NKU string program blossom as much as possible,” said quartet spokesperson Rebecca Merblum. They coach four student ensembles, serve as artistic director of NKU’s summertime Norse Festival and “mount large scale recruiting efforts throughout the tristate” for NKU’s music program. They plan to host a chamber music seminar called Intermezzo at the school in February.
The quartet will perform on Linton concerts Oct. 8 with Metropolitan Opera principal clarinetist Anthony McGill and Jan. 21 and 22 with pianist Michael Chertock. They also have dates at NKU Nov. 15 and the University of Dayton Nov. 4.
   “Audience building” is an ongoing task, said Merblum, who said they were thrilled with the response they have received. “The outpouring of generosity and kindness has been quite overwhelming.”
   For information about the Azmari Quartet, visit their web site at www.theazmariquartet.com.
   (first published in The Cincinnati Post Sept. 29, 2006)