In Greek mythology, there’s a popularized image of the three Fates huddled around a cauldron, hands aloft and at the ready to determine lifespan. One holds a ball of thread, the second a measuring tape, and the third a pair of shears. After witnessing The Danish String Quartet play at Zellerbach Hall on Oct. 10, one would challenge that there should be four figures instead of three — as the group truly held the power of fate with their strings.
The Danish String Quartet, after a two-year pandemic-induced tour hiatus, returned to the United States with this performance, which was the first of two Zellerbach shows scheduled for this season. The afternoon promised excellence from the get-go: with the acclaimed group performing two Schubert pieces and debuting a piece from Danish composer Bent Sorensen.
Executive and Artistic Director of Cal Performances Jeremy Geffen introduced the show and explained the group’s visas had only been finalized the week prior. The lengths, hoops and hurdles the group endured to arrive at Zellerbach set the bar high for the afternoon’s performance.
An amber-edged spotlight kissed four chairs and stands, and the quartet entered clad in black skinny jeans with bows in hand. The members, Frederik Oland, Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, Asbjorn Norgaard and Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin, all gave slight smiles and nods to the applauding crowd and settled in with both iPads and paper sheet music.
The viola, Asbjorn Norgaard, challenged the audience to imagine an expansive landscape for the Schubert piece, which served as appropriate imagery for the almost-hourlong piece. Norgaard’s lengthy introduction made the classical repertoire more approachable, as he compared Schubert’s repeating melodies to children’s lullabies before bedtime.
The afternoon offered a trio of titanic tributes to Schubert’s works: his “String Quartet in G Major,” Sorensen’s “Doppelganger” — a direct response to Schubert’s “Der Doppelganger,” both of which were played following the intermission. Although at first glance, the German Romantic composer overwhelmed the program, Schubert’s style opened up the performance with the possibility to send abundant melodies and building textures into Zellerbach’s concrete caverns.
The quartet approached the first piece of the afternoon with tenacity and rigor, never seeming to tire. Rune Tonsgaard Sorensen, one of the two violinists, moved with intentional passion, as he lifted his feet off the ground and swayed his torso. While other members remained stoic and still through the movements, the group became enlivened through their chemistry.
Stolen glances and head nods enunciated each bar of the score, as the players conducted the pieces by small signals alone – no conductor or baton in sight. Looking for these signals was akin to finding Waldo amidst the score’s chaotic landscape, adding personality to the performance.
The quartet’s mastery prevailed in the third movement, “Scherzo: Allegro vivace,” which began with two players in a tete-a-tete of call-and-response phrases. Whenever the group moved into pizzicato passages, the textural change brought lightness to the largely chaotic composition.
After the bold, major-key phrases of the Schubert, the quartet surprised the audience with the Sørenson piece, as a frenzy of whirling wails overtook the stage. The addition of a mute to the bridge of the violins dampened each note, but concurrently created a stinging, brassy sound and strained texture.
While the quartet remained relatively precise in their execution of Schubert, slight distractions arose that detracted from the performance itself. What may seem minor — such as a flimsy music stand that almost sent Oland’s sheet music flying or Sorenson scraping an iPad across the stage’s floor — was intensified considering the otherwise impeccable moments. Additionally, the temporality of the program itself seemed cut short by the approximate 12-minute “Der Doppelganger” that felt too brief to close the performance. After Sorenson’s fantastical piece, the second Schubert barely had breathing room before its conclusion.
Zellerbach Hall welcomed back the Danish String Quartet with fanatical fervor, and the group certainly deserved the afternoon’s applause. Their return to Berkeley on April 29 will bear high expectations, due to the precision and prowess showed this past Sunday — but it is without question that the group will rise to the occasion.