Modigliani String Quartet perform at Dayton Art Institute
By Sara Mastbaum
In 2003, the members of the Paris-based Modigliani String Quartet were four close friends studying together at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris. Ten years later, they’re one of the most acclaimed quartets in Europe with six albums, several world tours and a number of awards under their belt.
The quartet is making its fourth visit to Dayton on Saturday, Nov. 9 to perform as part of the Vanguard Concerts at the Dayton Art Institute. Now in its 52nd year, Vanguard Concerts was founded by Elana and Vince Bolling to bring world-class chamber music to the DAI.
“[The Bollings] needed a venue, and the museum’s Renaissance Auditorium was ideal,” said George Houk, who writes program notes for Vanguard Concerts and is the author of “Innocent Impresarios: Vanguard Concerts at the Dayton Art Institute.”
Vanguard Concerts have a history of attracting the world’s top chamber artists. “The Bollings have maintained the standards of musicianship they promised from the very start to bring to Dayton and to the Dayton Art Institute,” Houk said. “Nothing but the finest chamber ensembles and soloists from around the world.”
The Modigliani Quartet is a welcome addition to the Vanguard program. “The Modigliani Quartet have been winning prizes across Europe and the Americas for ten years, and are now among the continent’s most sought-after string quartets,” Houk said.
Many of those awards came during the group’s infancy. They won the Frits Philips String Competition in 2004, one year after forming the quartet.
Philippe Bernhard, the group’s first violinist, credits their early success to dedication. “We understood quickly that in order to give a chance to our group, we had to give up on everything else we were doing – recitals, teaching, orchestra,” he said.
In addition to making the group their primary focus, Bernhard feels that the friendship at the quartet’s core has kept it strong. The four musicians – Bernhard, second violinist Loic Rio, violist Laurent Marfaing and cellist François Kieffer – remain close. “We really believe that our musical life started with the quartet and consider ourselves as four quarters of a quartet,” said Bernhard.
“Ten years have passed, and the four friends of the conservatory remain the same, happy to play and travel together,” he continued. “We see each other every day while on tour, but also almost every day in Paris to build our repertoire and discuss the path we wish for our quartet to take.”
The quartet’s repertoire is generally a mix of the familiar and the rarely heard. For example, in Dayton they’re planning to play Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet Op. 50 No. 1. Since Haydn is, as Bernhard said, “the father of the string quartet,” his work is an essential part of the group’s repertoire.
“Haydn is a very important composer for us, but also for string quartet as a genre,” Bernhard explained. “For us, the Modigliani Quartet, he’s the composer we created our tone identity with.”
French composer Maurice Ravel’s work is also an important component of the quartet’s repertoire. Ravel’s F-Major String Quartet is on the menu for the Vanguard Concert as well. Bernhard calls the piece “a wonderful example of one of the greatest French periods for the arts, these years at the end of the 19th and beginning of 20th century, where so much changed in France.” Because the quartet’s members are all from France, he added, “It’s of course also very important for us to present a piece from our ‘national’ repertoire.”
While Haydn and Ravel are familiar to most, even devoted classical music fans may not have heard of Ernst von Dohnanyi, whose Op. 33 string quartet the group plans to perform. A Hungarian musician who died in 1960, Dohnanyi was a multifaceted artist: a pianist, teacher and composer who had careers in both the United States and Europe.
Bernhard called Dohnanyi “the perfect example of a very ‘complete’ musician: great pianist, wonderful teacher and very original composer. Bartok said about him, ‘One word could describe music in Budapest: Dohnanyi.’”
The blend of the well-known and the obscure is carefully selected by the members of the quartet. “We build our concert programs always thinking about what we wish to present to our audience,” said Bernhard. “In that case: string quartet tradition (Haydn), some music from our country (Ravel) and a piece that a lot of people from our audience may not know (Dohnanyi).”
The group began their current tour in June with a performance in Bogota, Columbia and will remain on the road until mid-December, when they wrap up in China. So is it R&R for the group after the touring season? Not so much. They’re releasing a new recording of three quartets by Haydn in January, including the piece they’re performing at the Dayton concert. The group has released an album roughly once a year since 2006, including a tenth anniversary recording of music by Debussy, Saint-Saëns and Ravel, released in January 2013.
The Modigliani String Quartet will perform with Vanguard Concerts at the Dayton Art Institute on Saturday, Nov. 9 at 8 p.m. in the NCR Renaissance Auditorium. For ticket information, please visit daytonartinstitute.org or modiglianiquartet.com.
Reach DCP freelance writer Sara Mastbaum at SaraMastbaum@DaytonCityPaper.com.