In the words of poet Jacques Prevert: “It is spring, the needle goes wild in the compass.” Conditions are ideal, then, for a visit from a chamber ensemble named after an uncontainable forest goddess. On April 19 the Vienna-based Artemis Quartet will open its UMS concert at Rackham Auditorium with a work composed in 1893 by Antonin Dvorak while on vacation from his duties as director of the National Conservatory of Music in Manhattan. As summer approached, Dvorak boarded a train with his family and journeyed more than a thousand miles inland to Spillville, a tiny settlement of Bohemian immigrants in northeastern Iowa. The trip was exhausting, but Dvorak, fascinated by steam-driven locomotives and those who operated them, found it exhilarating. He was also intrigued by the landscape of North America and its people, especially those of African and Iroquois ancestry.
The string quartet Dvorak completed about two weeks after arriving in Spillville is vividly American and emphatically Czech. Its third movement, born of long walks at daybreak, is a dazzling example of the composer’s interest in ornithology. When the persistent calls of a scarlet tanager permeated his study through an open window, Dvorak added its voice to the scherzo, along with what sound like goldfinches and chickadees. Ultimately he would complete fourteen string quartets. This, his twelfth, is positively bursting with life.
Dvorak’s friend Peter Tchaikovsky spent many of his own summers in the Ukraine, composing at his family’s estate in Kamenka, not far from Odessa. In 1869 he jotted down a melody he overheard being sung by a carpenter. Two years later, he incorporated it into his String Quartet no. 1. Soon the tune would become world famous as the “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Tchaikovsky’s first quartet is nicknamed “The Accordion” because at times the ensemble does seem to respire like an enormous squeezebox.
Sandwiched between Dvorak and Tchaikovsky on the program will be the fifth and most recent quartet by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks. Like Shostakovich, whose influence is keenly felt, Vasks’ music speaks for a people recuperating from the effects of totalitarian oppression. He shares Dvorak’s penchant for birdsong and uses Latvian folk music as source material, but the primary energies inhabiting this composer’s works are spirit, conscience, and empathy. Vasks speaks of his hope and faith that humanity may overcome its passion for self-annihilation. He grieves for the ecosystem with which we appear to be at war. In this quartet, completed in 2005, Vasks says he wishes to communicate “how we are each a part of the world and a world unto ourselves” while focusing as always upon “the existence and necessity of idealism and the love around us and in us.”