The acclaimed string ensemble Parker Quartet gave a free performance at Harvard University’s John Knowles Paine Concert Hall on Friday evening. The Grammy Award-winning string ensemble performed “String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Opus 122” (1966) and “String Quartet No. 9 in E-flat Major, Opus 117” (1964), both by Shostakovich, as well as Dvořák’s “String Quartet No. 13 in G Major, Opus 106” (1895). Friday’s concert was the first installment of the Blodgett Chamber Music Series at Harvard, an annual program of performances which are free and open to the public. The concert series will run through the spring.
Although they’ve won acclaim on the international stage, the Parker Quartet is Boston-bred. Violist Jessica Bodner, cellist Kee-Hyun Kim, and violinists Daniel Chong and Ken Hamao formed the Parker Quartet in 2002 during their sophomore year at the New England Conservatory. In 2014, the group accepted a position at Harvard as the Blodgett Artist-in-Residence. The Blodgett Chamber Music Series is just one of many responsibilities that come with the job; the artists also co-teach an advanced music course, give other performances around campus and debut the winning piece from an annual student composition contest. On top of all that, the ensemble still maintains a packed schedule of performances outside of Cambridge.
Last week’s performance featured a trio of string quartets, which were penned about 70 years apart. In a culture molded by the conveniences of ceaseless technological innovation, it’s easy to underestimate the value of hearing music in the format for which it was written. Shostakovich formed particularly close partnerships with his musicians, who in turn played a significant role in elevating his music to global renown. The first piece in Friday’s lineup, the seven-part “String Quartet No. 11 in F minor,” is haunted by the sudden death of second violinist Vassily Shirinsky just months before the piece’s debut. Like a wordless eulogy, the work’s serpentine rhythms and sinister melodies give voice to the terrible bewilderment of grief. By comparison, the neatly defined movements of Dvořák’s “String Quartet in G Major” sound like pop songs.
Such deeply personal music suits an intimate setting like Paine Concert Hall. Seated at the center of the hall, you can hear the players breathing in time with the music and distinguish the unique tonal hues of their glossy caramel-colored instruments. The effect is nothing short of mesmerizing.
Speaking with the Harvard Gazette, Bodner remarked that it took some time for audience members, many of whom have attended these annual concerts for over a decade, to “warm up” to their ensemble. Be that as it may, the audience certainly felt warmly on Friday; amid uproarious applause, the performers took an extra bow at intermission and three at the end of the show.
Events like the Blodgett Chamber Music Series are an idiosyncrasy of Boston-area college life. A free, truly public concert — as in, one that’s accessible to students and locals alike without insider knowledge or months of planning in advance — given by world-class musicians in so intimate a setting would be as inconceivable in New York City as in a New Jersey suburb. For anyone with even a casual interest in classical music, these shows are a must-see. For those looking to get acquainted with the world of classical music, it’s difficult to imagine a warmer introduction than this. Tickets can be reserved for free at the Harvard box office or online for a $3.50 service charge. While Friday’s concert was sold out, attendants encouraged prospective concert-goers to wait in line by the door to snag unclaimed tickets. Truancy is apparently common at these free performances. When the lights dimmed, there were still some seats to spare, like an invitation for newcomers to join the crowd.
The next concert in the Blodgett Chamber Music Series will be held on Nov. 17 at 3 p.m.