Monday, March 30, 2009

The Life Cycle of a String Quartet

One of the great quartets in the world of chamber music is drawing the curtain closed at the end of this season. The Guarneri Quartet has been playing for 45 years and the four members of the quartet decided that 2008-2009 will be their last season together. They’ll be performing one of their last concerts (ever) this Sunday afternoon at 4pm at Market Square Church in downtown Harrisburg. (This is my first post about the concert: there will be others, so check back.)

- - - - - - -

The Life Cycle of the String Quartet

Locating them in their natural habitat may not be difficult, but there is no one field guide that I know of which will help you identify a string quartet just by listening to them, nor give you particulars of their range, identifying characteristics nor even any information about their life cycle.

First of all, how does a string quartet’s life begin?

Very often, friends will get together to play, perhaps as students, decide the chemistry works well, find themselves a name and, if they decide to pursue something beyond the local scene, an agent. Having a cool name helps, have good chemistry is essential – and the agent, a necessity.

Giving concerts puts them before the public and with any luck some influential critics. Winning a few competitions doesn’t hurt. In fact, today it too is almost a necessity.

Eventually, the quartet will be performing in better and bigger halls in larger and more important cities and, with any luck, drawing in some money to make worthwhile all the time spent practicing and rehearsing and performing, working the repertoire into shape for either the discerning public or the competition judges and dealing with internal issues ranging from interpretation to the conflicts that inevitably arise when four different people – possibly with four different personalities and temperaments – spend so much time together, like any other deeply committed relationship.

Lucky ones get to make recordings. Luckier ones get to keep theirs active in the catalogue (neither is so easy today).

The more famous a quartet becomes, the busier it gets, the more demands it creates on its own inner workings but also in the life-outside-the-ensemble of each component member. One quartet player described working with his colleagues as being “like a second marriage.” It is difficult to be on the road when the spouse is left home and the children are growing up. Fortunately today, while tours may be more numerous, they do not require the travel time they once took, chewing up great chunks of the calendar year. And now there are cell-phones and e-mail to help them stay connected with the roots at home.

There are probably no statistics kept anywhere that would indicate how many quartets are born to compare that to how many quartets, for instance, are performing in any one season. But the names of only a few of them will reach the Top Shelf.

How quartets die, metaphorically speaking, is easier to explain. Many simply disband at an early age, whether for lack of success if not failure, or because the chemistry sours, reality bites or individual career paths change as the members decide to pursue the less challenging world of the solo performer where there is only one person to argue with about phrasing, dynamics or repertoire.

If a quartet is a single musical organism made up of four individuals, what happens when one member leaves – for whatever reason – and has to be replaced?

For many groups it’s the equivalent of transplant surgery: the process is one thing, the period waiting for the newly transplanted member to take (or not be rejected) is another. Sometimes this works and other times it can lead to the nastiest blood-letting from which the patient would be lucky to survive.

Sometimes, quartets change their personal and reconstitute themselves as almost wholly new ensembles. Ralph Evans, the 1st Violinist of the Fine Arts Quartet which was founded in 1946, actually grew up listening to the recording made by the original Fine Arts Quartet. Now, there is a whole new generation of players carrying on the name.

The Juilliard Quartet has undergone similar re-configurations since it, too, was formed in 1946: its founding 1st violinist, Robert Mann, retired after 50 seasons with the ensemble. When they performed with Market Square Concerts during their 60th Anniversary season (and Market Square Concert’s 25th), Ronald Copes, the most recent “New Guy,” had already been with the group nine years. But now, Joel Smirnoff, the current 1st violinist, will be leaving at the end of this season to take on the role of president of the Cleveland Institute of Music (moving on to bigger and more extensive organizational issues), to be replaced by the Next New Guy, Nicholas Eanet, 36 years old and a former student of Robert Mann’s.

And so life goes on.

Each significant anniversary is approached with a justifiable celebration, perhaps new recordings or a series of re-issued recordings (at least in the days when that part of the business was still industrious) and a tour similar to a victory lap. There are inevitable comparisons to its own past and questions raised about its future: a quartet at this stage of its life never has the chance to just relax in the present.

Other quartets make it to a ripe old age which in the world of classical music, where the composers themselves are often 100 to 250 years old, is not so easy to define in merely mortal terms. Standard definitions according to Social Security or political term limitations need not apply. There is no determining formula to combine the quartet’s number of years spent before the public multiplied by the age of its individual members to come up with a Quartet Longevity Index.

So after so many years together, the question must be faced, eventually, “when is it time?”

If the members agree that it would be better to disband and retire at a certain point rather than reconfigure itself into a new generation, the passing of the quartet is filled with more than just nostalgia. This time, if the public is lucky, there will also be one more victory lap that becomes an emotional long farewell. You would think it would just be easier to put out a press release announcing its retirement but this would be read by its fans like an obituary of a dear friend, never getting the chance to hear them one last time, to say good-bye.

The Guarneri Quartet has decided this season will be its last. Was it a momentous decision made after much soul-searching?

Not exactly. As violist Michael Tree explained in an interview last autumn, about the decision they reached in June, 2007.

"It was last spring in New York, about five minutes before we were due on-stage. The thought was raised that we might consider ending our careers on what we hoped was a high note. And that was that. We all had similar feelings, and one of the things we've learned over the years is to keep discussion to a minimum."

After 45 years and with only one personnel change in its history, the Guarneri Quartet is in the process of taking that final tour. This Sunday is our chance to celebrate all those great years of music-making and say good-bye.

Need I add, “don’t miss it”?

You can now read how the Guarneri Quartet got its start.

- Dr. Dick

No comments:

Post a Comment