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Staying true to Beethoven 

The Amenda Quartet has played all kinds of music during its short six years, but it has remained true to its initial conception. The quartet -- violinists (and married couple) Patricia Sunwoo and David Brickman; violist Melissa Matson; and cellist Mimi Hwang -- formed with the goal to learn all of Beethoven's string quartets. (The group's namesake is Karl Friedrich Amenda, a violinist and pastor who rates at least a passing mention in most Beethoven biographies; the composer called him his "dear, good, sincere friend.")

After performances of individual quartets here and there, the Amenda Quartet plunged into "Project Ludwig" for the 2015-16 concert season. The season would be focused on presenting all of Beethoven's music for string quartet, with performances at venues across the city and region, from Rochester Contemporary Art Center and the Brainery to Buckland Park and Canandaigua's Sonnenberg Gardens.

This weekend finds the Amenda Quartet in the Unitarian Church's First Muse chamber music series. And next month, it will conclude the series with Op. 130 at the South Avenue Mission Church.

The quartet's preoccupation is in a collection of 16 works "on the bucket list for most string players," Sunwoo says. They contain some of Beethoven's most visionary, demanding music -- to play, and infinitely rewarding to listen to.

Beethoven's first six string quartets, Opus 18, "seem so simple," Sunwoo says. "But you're also aware that Beethoven had just arrived in Vienna and was aware of his greatness."

There are hints of sprawl, one might say, in the earlier, more Mozartian quartets, written around 1800, and also touches of classical form, which helped to shape the hugely conceived landscapes of his later works.

"It's a lot easier for me to know my role in the Opus 18 quartets," Matson says. "The viola is obviously a supporting voice throughout. But in a late Beethoven quartet, I'll be given just three notes and have to figure out how they fit into the texture. The later works are much more awkward instrumentally."

The Amenda Quartet is pairing Beethoven's final quartet with his first -- at least in published order -- for its performance on Sunday. The early work exudes confidence and charm; the final work covers much more profound territory. Its final movement begins with a question-and-answer motive over which Beethoven wrote the phrases "Must it be? It must be!" The finale expresses the confidence of someone who has successfully come through a dark night of the soul.

The concert also includes Beethoven's "Grosse Fuge," or "Great Fugue," a 15-minute work that was originally intended as part of Opus 130, but whose intellectuality and relentless energy dwarf the quartet completely. Whether played in its original place, or on its own, the piece is a tremendous challenge. Regarded as bizarrely dissonant and unplayable in the 19th century, it came into its own in the 20th: Igor Stravinsky called it "an absolutely contemporary piece of music that will be contemporary forever."

"I've come to playing these quartets from being steeped in playing Beethoven's orchestral music," says Brickman, until recently a longtime RPO violinist. "You can't play them without thinking of the symphonies. The ending of 'Grosse Fuge,' with everybody running around joyously in 6/8 -- it's the same feeling you get at the ending of the Ninth Symphony."

At the end of his life, Beethoven was deaf, and his inability to hear what he had written probably led him to write in a sometimes cryptic, abstracted style that mystified many of his contemporaries -- "unmoored from acoustics," as Matson puts it. This music can still challenge modern players and listeners, even though they can sense the philosophical depth behind it.

"There's a quote of Beethoven saying, in effect, 'When I'm composing I don't give a damn about your fiddle,'" Brickman says.

As opposed to a more formal chamber music setting like the Eastman School's Kilbourn or Hatch Halls, the venues used during Project Ludwig have offered the chance to be up close and personal. "When you're in a small venue like RoCo," Matson says, "you and the audience get very caught up in the creation of the music."

The members of the quartet admit that full-time ensembles spend much more time polishing interpretations -- taking up to 50 rehearsals on one piece. "After six years together, we've become much more efficient," Matson says. "When you know that if you suddenly decide you want to play something a certain way, and that if you do, everyone else will go along with you, it's a great feeling."

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