String quartets hold an important place in the musical life of southern Maine, thanks largely to the year-round performances by the Portland and Da Ponte quartets. But concertgoers here have scant opportunity to hear what quartets based elsewhere are doing, beyond the few that Portland Ovations imports for its series.

That’s changing, now. With David and Phillip Ying, of the Ying Quartet, sharing the direction of the Bowdoin International Music Festival, string quartets have taken a prominent place on the festival’s guest roster. So whatever else the festival offers and always has – including opportunities to hear a healthy amount of new music, faculty guests and promising student performers – it is also now a showcase for established quartets, both on their own and in collaborations with the festival’s other musicians.

The Parker Quartet, which took over the stage at Studzinski Recital Hall on Monday evening, offered an eloquent, often wrenching account of Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3 in F major (Op. 73) and, with guest wind players, a bright-hued rendering of Schubert’s Octet in F major (D. 803).

Founded in 2002 and based in Boston, the Parker built its reputation partly with a focus on new music (although it plays plenty of standard repertory, too) and an openness to experimenting with fresh approaches to audience building: I first heard the group in 2007, when it played works of Bartok and Ligeti in the tiny back room of a bar in Brooklyn, where it had a series of its own.

The Shostakovich Third Quartet, composed in 1946, is a wonderfully enigmatic work, full of contradictions that make sense once you understand the conflicts in Shostakovich’s psyche. It is driven by a desire to revisit the depredations of the recently concluded World War II and to commemorate its victims, but it also steadfastly avoids glorifying the Soviet regime, which was in the market, at the time, for celebratory works. There is plenty of Shostakovich’s inherent bitterness here (not surprising, given that he had Stalin peering over his shoulder), but also considerable beauty – much, but not all, of a dark, melancholy sort.

The Parker Quartet’s reading was the picture of a tight, finely balanced ensemble and control of color and texture. The slow second movement, for example, brimmed with restlessness and anxiety – qualities that came through by way of a throaty, textured sound and light, staccato chording that gave way to brusqueness in the faster third movement, which Shostakovich described, at the time of the work’s premiere, as “the forces of war unleashed.”


Yet within all that, Shostakovich gave the first violin line – beautifully played by Daniel Chong – so much exquisite melody that, by the time you reach the fifth and last movement, you’ve started wondering whether this quartet is actually a stealth violin concerto. Even so, it offers ample interplay, which allowed Chong’s colleagues – violinist Ying Xue, violist Jessica Bodner and cellist Kee-Hyun Kim – to shine equally.

The Schubert, composed in 1824 on a commission from the clarinet-playing Count Ferdinand Troyer, is a more carefree work, packed with rich melodies woven through movements not far removed from courtly dance forms.

Given the source of his funding for the work, Schubert naturally gave special attention to the clarinet line, which Bixby Kennedy played with admirable suppleness and beauty of tone. He was unquestionably the star of this performance, although Schubert gave plenty of top drawer material to the first violin as well, yielding magnificent dialogues between Kennedy and Chong.

That said, chamber music is supposed to be about equality, and though you can argue that Schubert did not quite achieve that having surrendered so many ear-grabbing moments to the clarinet and first violin, he supplied crucial (if briefer) lines to each of the other instruments as well. Besides Kennedy, the quartet’s colleagues here were bassoonist Atao Liu, hornist William Loveless and bassist Kurt Muroki, all of whom made fine contributions.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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