Völs Quartet at Berkeley City Club

Lively concert in lovely hall

Last Tuesday Berkeley Chamber Performances inaugurated a new season with the Völs String Quartet at the sumptuous Julia Morgan-designed Berkeley City Club. The program wandered through the twentieth century with satisfying variety. Two seasoned performers teamed up with two more youthful for a sound that was both mature and delectably energetic.

La Oracion del Torero by Joaquin Turina opened and closed enigmatically. The quartet played with quiet tension, almost held breath, then moved into more languorous material. Ashley Garritson’s exceptionally deep-toned cello anchored the group, providing warmth to balance Daniel Andai’s wicked violin slurs. Turina is coy, with polyphonies that come unexpectedly together for one velvet chord, then return to the shuttle and weave of separate melodies. And his transitions gently mock, with a “final” chord followed by chromatic slurs down, as if he can’t quite decide where to rest. Even in the thicker Torero (bullfighter) rhythms, his intent is gentle, and the musicians’ careful balance does him justice. The ambiguous tonality of the ending turns sweet with a quiet, drawn-out unison.

Dvorak’s Quartet in E-flat Major, op. 51 followed, a nostalgic journey through his beloved Bohemia, full of gypsy violin calls and viola responses, and dissonant pizzicato chords from the cello. The Elegie was finely balanced, thicker cello against the fierce sweetness of violins.

The foursome returned from intermission with Dmitri Shostakovich’s elegantly brutal String Quartet in F-sharp Minor, Op. 108. Arpeggios from second violinist Rebecca Jackson formed a thin backbone, evoking a distant and uncaring quality where laughter and sobs become indistinguishable.

Shostakovich was a master of “people’s music” according to notes by violinist Andai, referring to the composer’s knack for popular motifs. His first movement repeats three short notes, first bowed, then pizzicato, for a sound we recognize as knocking on a door. Against an anxious cello line the knocking becomes Russian-winter ominous. And even more foreboding under Stalin, when the wolf was never far from the door. Shostakovich gathers wind, cold and fear and renders them musically.

The Völs played with energetic dark unisons, an opportunity to hear the meshing of different personas and experiences in common cause.

A fulsome Puccini Elegy followed, romantic and very Italian. Violins switched chairs so we could hear Jackson, and she then flourished in Four, for Tango, written by Astor Piazzolla in 1988 for the Kronos Quartet. Sharp up-bowed slides created “whips,” followed by dense, impassioned runs. Violist Joel Pagán deeply bowed his fast passages, adding a little gravel to the mix.

Piazzolla is complex and modern but never abandons the Argentinean dance, and the rhythms of his tango can be heard peeking through.

They returned for an encore, a sublime passage made famous in the movie soundtrack of Scent of a Woman. Contemporary and sensual, this piece and this quartet bear watching.

Berkeley Chamber Performances continues its season Tuesday, Nov. 18 at 8:00 with cellist Monica Scott performing works of Beethoven, Schumann and Carter accompanied by Hadley McCarroll. Dining at the excellent Berkeley City Club beforehand is a plus, but requires a reservation: 510-848-7800. More information is on their website,

—Adam Broner

This article originally appeared in the Piedmont Post