Last weekend's Celebrity Series concert featuring the Guarneri and Johannes Quartets inevitably struck a wistful note: the venerable Guarneri (at left) has been performing - in nearly their current form - since 1964, and has announced their imminent retirement; meanwhile the up-and-coming Johannes (below right), mentored by the elder quartet at the Marlboro Music Festival, is just now making itself known. The torch was being passed, as they say, before our very eyes, but the Guarneri eschewed the maudlin embellishments of the classic farewell tour. Instead, they shared the stage generously with the group they clearly see as continuing their legacy - joining them to perform a spanking new octet from the distinguished American composer William Bolcom, and then the joyous, universally-beloved Mendelssohn Opus 20. How many farewells, one might ask, end with a warm welcome for the next generation? Not many - but perhaps, with any luck, this gesture could become a trend; the Guarneri certainly left the stage bathed in as much, if not more, affection than ever - and any program that ends with the Mendelssohn Octet cannot, perforce, end in tears.
The Guarneri played alone, in fact, only briefly, in the concert's one moment of pure melancholy, "Passing Through," a new piece by Derek Bermel that conjures from a Beethoven motif a slight but touching rumination that's part elegy, part lullaby, and part benediction - for the Quartet itself, no doubt. The Johannes offered another, more challenging premiere, "Homunculus" by Esa-Pekka Salonen - a densely jagged piece remarkable in both its intensity and lyricism that seemed designed to display the young quartet's impeccable technique.
Whether the Johannes will develop a collective personality beyond the calm deployment of its startling skill remains, I have to say after a single hearing, an open question; clearly their none-too-secret weapon is lead violinist Soovin Kim, who brought off brilliantly several searing, singing passages at the very top of his instrument's range. Kim let himself be absorbed, however, into the ensemble sound of Bolcom's octet, which was satisfyingly complex, and even haunting at first, but didn't display much of that composer's signature energy until its last two movements (which seemed to quote here and there the famous Mendelssohn, as if Bolcom were glancing over his shoulder at what he knew would be on the program). When it did arrive, the Mendelssohn was suitably glorious, and Kim was in fine form, grinning to himself as he soared through the virtuosic passages of the first movement - though he hardly hogged the spotlight; the group honored the piece's symphonic form, coalescing beautifully in the nearly-skittering scherzo and the rambunctious finale. The crowd was soon on its feet, but there was no encore; perhaps we'll see the Guarneri again (they're performing through the end of next season), but the torch had been passed, and that was that.