The Vermeer Quartet: violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi, cellist Marc Johnson, violinist Mathias Tacke and violist Richard Young.
For Easter, classical music groups often perform Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion — just as they perform the Messiah at Christmas. But this Easter weekend, the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth is offering something different. It’s a less-well-known masterpiece, but as KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports, it also involves the reunion of a once-great string quartet.
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The renowned Vermeer Quartet may not have had all the international, brand-name recognition of the Emerson or Guarneri or Tokyo quartets. But the Vermeer was nominated for three Grammys, and if ever a chamber music group was identified with a single masterwork above all – a signature piece – it’d be the Vermeer and The Last Seven Words of Christ by Franz Joseph Haydn. The Vermeer Quartet released their version in 1996. Richard Young, the group’s violist, recalls, “Immediately it was, well, kind of a hit. The very first week, Holy Week, they estimated that this recording was heard over the radio – and this was before streaming – by something like 50 million people. I mean, that’s amazing.”
One reason for the popularity and acclaim: The Vermeer included short recorded speeches by such figures as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty. They did it because spoken homilies were part of the very first performance in the cathedral in Cadiz, Spain in 1786.
“Instead of asking Haydn to write a piece that was generally inspired by the crucifixion of Jesus,” Young explains, “the bishop there wanted something that was specifically related to the Seven Last Words from the Cross. And so together, they came up with this ingenious format.”
The Seven Last Words are actually the seven last statements Jesus spoke, assembled from the different gospels – utterances such as ‘Father, why have you abandoned me?” and “It is finished.” In Cadiz, the bishop had made a Good Friday ritual for several years: He’d darken the church except for a single candle and then recite a phrase, followed by a meditation on its meanings. To this, Haydn added a musical reflection on each statement, plus a conclusion at the end evoking the earthquake that the Gospel of Mathew says happened immediately after the crucifixion.
The Seven Last Words is considered one of Haydn’s outstanding achievements. The composer must have thought so, too. He wrote or oversaw four different versions, including the original orchestral setting, a solo piano arrangement and the string quartet version. Needless to say, Young prefers the quartet — for its personal qualities. The string quartet, he observes, has often been reserved by great composers for expressing their most intense, their deepest feelings; “Beethoven wrote nine great symphonies, but sixteen amazing string quartets. Bartok wrote his Concerto for Orchestra but six spectacular quartets.”
He points out how unusual The Last Seven Words is: how it’s Haydn’s only sacred work with spoken texts, how in the concluding section Haydn’s music seems to leap forward a generation to sound like young Beethoven. Young knows his Haydn: He edited a 2005 book, Echoes from Calvary: Meditations on Franz Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, which includes not only his own thoughts but some 60 different meditations from such authors as Andrew Greeley and historian Grover Zinn.
The Vermeer has updated/adapted Seven Last Words to each new city where it performs, and speakers may offer decidedly secular reflections on death or spirituality. Gary Levinson (above), the new director of the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth, says, “Of all the performances, the beauty of it is that not only are the interpretations different, but the speakers are all different. I’ve read meditations from, for example, judges who have to convict and decide on someone’s life and death.”
In fact, for the Fort Worth concert, there will be religious speakers, including a rabbi and an imam, but also a judge and a former radio host.
The Vermeer Quartet is reuniting Saturday in the Renzo Piano Pavilion because Levinson, a violinist with the Dallas Symphony, has performed several times with Young. Levinson wanted to program something special for his first season as the Chamber Music Society director. Fully expecting to be laughed at, he called up Young (left).
“I said to him, ‘What would it take to reconstitute the Vermeer String Quartet for this one performance in Fort Worth?’ And he said, ‘Well, let me talk to the guys, I’m sure they’ll say no, and it’ll be a very short conversation.’ And a week later, he said, ‘The guys want to do it.’ So I said, ‘Wow. Are you serious?’ “
The Vermeer was formed in 1969 but stopped playing in 2008 because of one member’s personal reasons. The other three members opted not to find a replacement. But last year, the group played at a memorial service for a member’s spouse. To their ears, they still sounded great. This only flummoxed Young. He asked another musician: “‘Why did we work so hard, why did we kill ourselves all those years – if the result that we can get is as good as it ever was? I mean, after not having played, not having rehearsed at all?’ And the guy – he said, ‘It’s because you guys did kill each other.’ “
So the Vermeer was already scheduling a concert in Chicago — their former home base — when Levinson called. Adding Fort Worth has turned all this into an admittedly (very) short reunion tour. Whether it’ll go beyond this, Young says he doesn’t know.
But then, the story of Easter, ultimately, is a story of resurrection.