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May 22, 2000, Monday

QUARTET SHOWCASES MUSIC'S EVOLUTION

Ralph O'Dette, For The Dispatch

It has been said that melody, harmony and rhythm are the building blocks of classical music. That theory was in evidence yesterday as the Coolidge Quartet concluded the Jefferson Academy of Music season at the Columbus Museum of Art. String quartets by Haydn, Beethoven and Schoenberg showed clearly how those building blocks evolved between 1797 and 1927.

The Coolidge Quartet was formed in 1997 and chose its name to honor Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, whose knowing largesse in commissioning chamber music is legendary. Coolidge would have been pleased with "her'' quartet.

Schoenberg was sandwiched between popular Haydn and Beethoven, presumably to keep chamber music lovers in their seats during the dreaded modern stuff. Of course, the best should also be saved for last.

Haydn had been composing string quartets for 40 years when he created the String Quartet in G Major, Op. 76, No. 1 in 1797. Except for a few fleeting intonation slips by the first violin, the performance was thoughtful and polished. The overall result, however, seemed dutifully spirited.

There was no such detachment from the Schoenberg String Quartet No. 3, Op. 30 from 1927. Theyoung players have this difficult music under their fingers, but more important, in their minds and hearts. The music is intense and relentless, even when it is meant to be lighthearted, and the players must be convinced it has something worthwhile to say. They were and I am. Accepting mature Schoenberg takes effort -- unless your mother sang it to you as a child -- but the effort pays off.

The Beethoven String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 59, No. 2 had to be the finale. Today we are prepared for the drama, the range of emotions and the sharp contrasts of this radical music: When the piece was new, performers thought Beethoven was playing a practical joke; nobody writes music like that.

The Coolidge was up to the challenge. It was a masterly, no-holds- barred but always controlled, truly outstanding performance.

The unusual and beautiful encore was Carl Neilsen's At the bier of a young artist.