ROCKPORT -- The idea of chamber music as a conversation between individuals is sometimes belied by professional ensembles, which can take on a collective, unified personality. The Miami String Quartet, performing Saturday night as part of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival, demonstrated this single-minded approach, with all its attendant virtues and sins.
The ensemble's sound, keyed by assertive bow attacks that produced near-percussive accents, was well-suited to Alabama-based Charles Norman Mason's "Prelude to a Parlay," premiered earlier this year by the quartet at the novel venue of a Birmingham City Council meeting. The piece, written by Mason during his Rome Prize residency, is a vigorous, rhythmically asymmetrical translation of an old spiritual; the driving, minimalist-inspired repeated-note rhythms played to the group's strengths. The off-balance meters precluded overarching lyricism, and a venture into Victorian harmonies was a too-brief contrast, but the bright, bracing texture held the ear until the slightly abrupt ending.
The Mason piece was followed by a work by Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote his final Quartet in F Minor, op. 80, after the death of his sister, fellow composer, and lifelong confidante Fanny. Conventional wisdom holds that the shock inspired Mendelssohn to a newfound seriousness and depth, but there was always a potent dramatic engine beneath his considerable polish; this work just brings it to the fore.
The performance was unrelentingly stormy. Even in softer sections, the sound was white-knuckled; the dominant rhetoric was juxtaposed extremes, rather than phrase-to-phrase accumulations of breadth. Cellist Keith Robinson and violist Yu Jin projected impressively dark and massive timbre, but little nuance; violinists Ivan Chan and Cathy Meng Robinson bowed with breathless energy that sometimes marred the tonal beauty. The excitement devolved into exhaustion.
After intermission, cellist Rhonda Rider and violist Marcus Thompson joined the group for Tchaikovsky's 1890 string sextet "Souvenir de Florence." Like Mason, Tchaikovsky wrote the work on an Italian sojourn, and it similarly bears little evidence of Mediterranean origin: The last two thumping, folk-like movements are Tchaikovsky at his most Slavic.
Though hard-edged intensity still predominated, Rider and Thompson, cultivating a more refined, silky phrasing, expanded the discourse into something approaching a real give-and-take at inspired moments, their delicately shaded background threw the quartet's primary colors into vibrant relief. To compare it to another artistic pursuit, it was the difference between straight whiskey and a well-mixed cocktail.