Arts & Culture

April 13, 2014

Vermeer String Quartet reunites for ‘Seven Last Words’

The highly esteemed musical group will perform the Haydn work Saturday at the Kimbell.

If you attend the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth’s presentation of the Vermeer String Quartet at the Renzo Piano Pavilion in the Kimbell Art Museum on Saturday, you will likely see the group’s longtime violist, Richard Young, playing with confidence and seeming at ease.

But it was not always thus.

“They thought I played violin and viola,” says Young, recalling the day in 1985 when the quartet invited him to audition for the empty viola chair in the famed ensemble. “But I was exclusively a violinist. I had never even picked up a viola and couldn’t read a viola clef.”

But when Young fessed up to not really being a violist, he received neither a rejection nor sympathy.

“They said, ‘Well, you have six weeks,’ ” Young says. So he borrowed an instrument and got busy.

“I have never worked so hard in my life,” he says.

The effort paid off, however, because Young got the job and became one-fourth of one of the busiest ensembles in classical music. Where most string quartet players have other jobs that support their chamber music habits, the Vermeer members — which today also include violinists Shmuel Ashkenasi and Mathias Tacke, and cellist Marc Johnson — always stayed so active as a quartet that no other employment was needed.

Or at least that was the case until 2007, when the group, which was founded in 1969, ceased touring when the spouse of one of the players began cancer treatment. These days, the quartet rarely performs, so their concert at the Kimbell is a bit of a coup for the Chamber Music Society of Fort Worth and its artistic director, Gary Levinson.

“I’m not sure we would have said yes to very many people other than Gary, whom we respect as a fellow musician,” Young says. Levinson is the Dallas Symphony Orchestra’s senior principal associate concertmaster, who is in his initial season at the helm of the chamber music society.

When the quartet does venture out, Young says, it is almost always to perform Joseph Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, the only piece on Saturday’s program.

“There is nothing else in the chamber music repertoire quite like it. The joke in the quartet is that we are going to keep doing it until we learn it,” Young says, citing the piece as one of the signature works of the Vermeer. The quartet received a Grammy nomination for its recording of the piece in 1988.

Easter Eve is an especially spiritually appropriate day for it to be played.

The Seven Last Words of Christ (which is also known as The Seven Last Words of Our Savior on the Cross) consists of movements based on the seven phrases that the Bible says Jesus uttered from the cross and concludes with an “earthquake” movement.

The work is not one of Haydn’s best-known pieces, but it was said to be one of the Austrian composer’s favorites. He composed the multi-part piece as an orchestral work on a commission from a priest in Spain in 1785. But he later arranged it as a string quartet, reinvented it as an oratorio (a work of orchestra, chorus and solo vocalists), and gave his blessings to a solo piano version created by his publisher.

One of the things that may have made Haydn so sweet on this piece, which was commissioned for a Good Friday service, was the way in which he was paid for it: The priest, it is said, sent the composer a chocolate cake filled with gold coins.

But Young says he feels that Haydn’s affection for this work probably went beyond just being proud of the notes he had put on the page.

“It was a vehicle through which he could express his own profound religious convictions. He was a devout believer,” Young says.

Over the years, the quartet has developed a way of presenting the piece that honors its origins and enhances its appeal.

“It is exhausting for the audience to hear eight slow movements in a row, as varied as they may be,” he says.

So, to break things up a bit, the ensemble decided to perform the work as it was when that priest in Cadiz did it back in the 18th century — with short homilies, or “meditations,” read between the musical sections.

“You really need the spoken meditations to focus your attention appropriately on what it is that inspired this particular music,” Young says.

To that end, the ensemble has gathered an assortment of speakers, including a rabbi, an imam, a priest and a judge, to deliver the meditations.

“They will all write their own material,” he says.

But while many of those local spiritual and secular leaders will be known to the audience, they will have a hard time taking the title of the most celebrated reader the quartet has had on board over its many performances of this work — a young African-American legislator chosen to read a Gospel passage in a 2000 concert, The New York Times wrote, because of his civic leadership on Chicago’s South Side.

“We even had Barack Obama, long before he was famous,” Young says.

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