From Beethoven to Washington

Cape Cod Chamber Quartet comes to the Island for a fall concert.


The Martha’s Vineyard Chamber Music Society is bringing back the Cape Cod Chamber Quartet, which is presenting an enticing program on Friday, Oct. 27, under the direction of Matt Scinto, with violinists Emma Powell and Jesse MacDonald, Maureen Heflinger on viola, and cellist Timothy Paek.

In a recent phone interview, MacDonald talked about what to expect: “This program was a bit more of a collaborative effort among the four players. Tim wanted to play Beethoven’s ‘Harp Quartet,’ and then our first violinist, Emma, came up with the idea of the other piece that might mold around it really well — Shelley Washington’s ‘Middleground.’”

The opening of the program will be a Kronos Quartet arrangement of a Gregorian chant–style piece, followed by works from the Danish String Quartet. “While they do a lot of music from the classical canon, they also arrange and transcribe their own tunes that are more traditional to Danish folklore and culture,” MacDonald says. “They are just amazingly wonderful to listen to. One in particular, ‘Naja’s Waltz,’ is absolutely haunting, and then picks up and goes into more of a jazzy, swing-type dance tune called ‘Old Reinlender.’ It makes you want to get up from your seat and dance. They are a wonderful way to get the audience involved, and to hoot and holler at the beginning of the concert.”

Washington’s work will be next. “It’s fast becoming one of my favorite pieces for quartet,” MacDonald says. “It is definitely in the vein of a fiddle tune, very folksy.”

“Middleground” celebrates Washington’s childhood in Missouri and Kansas. It’s like a road movie in musical form, taking the listener in a car alongside her family and friends. Her program notes, written as a poem, express the many-layered recollections that she poured into the piece:

MIDDLEGROUND: the space grounded, the between, the center.
The Heartland. The prairie, the grasslands,
Konza, Flint Hills, Manhattan, Emporia, Salina.
Where we gathered. Home of the heart, heart of the home.
The years spent in cars, daydreaming, 
scooping handfuls of wheat, racing out into 
amber fields, cycling together, water wheel 
ice cream, fireworks and apples. The stories 
shared, books read sprawled in the yard, 
family prayers over anything, late evening 
walks, quiet nights. Open arms, open hearts, 
humble and extraordinary.

“Washington gives us a sense of what it was like for her to live in the Midwest. We fell in love with that, and really try to emulate all the colors she’s trying to portray, and I think it really goes well with the Beethoven quartet we will be playing next,” MacDonald says.

At the time he wrote the quartet, Beethoven was seeking refuge in a more idyllic place to compose the piece. MacDonald explains, “He composed it in a little refuge town called Baden, which is about 15 miles from Vienna. Earlier in his career, Beethoven had been a huge supporter of Napoleon. He had written many works to honor him, in fact.” However, once Napoleon started invading different countries, including Austria, where Beethoven was living, his entire world crumbled. “Beethoven had been on the cutting edge of compositional theory at the time, but this one is much more in the classical style of his earlier quartets. It’s really beautiful, simple, but heart-wrenching,” says MacDonald
It’s called the “Harp Quartet” because of its distinctive plucked strings in the first movement. Beethoven experimented with different timbres and techniques to make it a standout in his chamber music repertoire. The quartet consists of four movements: the spirited Poco adagio — Allegro, the lyrical Adagio ma non troppo, the playful Presto, and the jubilant Allegretto con variazioni. The opening movement is where the harplike plucked strings come into play, where all four musicians pluck their strings, emulating a harp and providing a delicate contrast to the flowing melodies. Beethoven’s use of contrasting dynamics and intricate thematic development create a sense of drama and tension throughout the piece, including a tinge of sadness.

MacDonald says, “For me, this concert is all about ‘roots,’ or going back to the start, especially with Beethoven — that there is some semblance of happiness within all of us. Much can be said for the music that we play; it is a way of expressing feelings and motives that we wouldn’t usually express in our daily lives. We four feel very humbled to be playing this music, and so I think we would want to have our audiences be warmed and have a sense of happiness and joy after we play the concert.”

The Cape Cod Chamber Quartet will perform Friday, Oct. 27, at 4 pm, at the First Congregational Church of West Tisbury. Visit to learn more, and buy tickets for the concert.