Bruce Hodges hears the performance of Dvořák, Grappelli, Dana Wilson, Kazka and Haydn at the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA, US, on 3 December 2023


A feast of an evening from the Formosa Quartet. Photo: Sam Zauscher

The language of food often shows up in writing about music, because some concerts are absolutely delicious, such as this one with the Formosa Quartet, presented by the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society. But the main-course finale, Dvořák’s String Sextet, was almost eclipsed by a first half of tasty appetisers.

Introducing five startling pop and jazz morsels, violinist Wayne Lee pointed out a wad of aluminium foil attached to the bridge of Deborah Pae’s cello bridge, which created an appealing rattle for Stéphane Grappelli’s Star Eyes (1943). From composer Dana Wilson came The night of H’s (2008), a ball of nervous energy using a poem by violinist Jasmine Lin. And the quartet conjured the smokiest of jazz lounges with a Taiwanese folk song Rain Night Flower, arranged in 2016 by Wei-Chieh Lin and Lin’s catchy arrangement of Minor Swing (1937) by Grappelli and Django Reinhardt.

Perhaps most striking was Plakala (2018), a song from the Ukrainian singer Kazka, arranged by Clancy Newman, a cellist who produced a recent album for the quartet. With Pae and her colleagues gathered around her – Lin focusing on the pegs, violist Matthew Cohen wearing gloves for pizzicatos and Lee crouched on the floor with an extra bow – the result pulsated like a happy, amoebic life form.

As an opener came Haydn’s ‘Fifths’ Quartet op.76 no.2 – sprightly, with rhythmic verve. And in the Dvořák, violist Hsin-Yun Huang and cellist Peter Wiley helped create a surprisingly meaty timbre. The finale, accelerating gleefully to the end, brought the house down.