October 2, 2015
There is an often repeated and certainly justified belief that only a truly experienced professional string quartet can do justice to the masterpieces of the quartet repertoire. After all, its four members would have had the time to know each other’s musical personality intimately; to learn how to work well together; to spend the many hours necessary to study any given work in great detail; and, finally, to perform it over and over again, gathering valuable insights along the way.
And yet, this summer at the Marlboro Music Festival, I witnessed four extraordinary string quartet performances by musicians who have never played together before as a group. Alban Berg’s Opus 3, Leoš Janáček’s Intimate Letters, Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 132, and Béla Bartók’s Second String Quartet all came alive in ways I shall remember for a long time.
How could that have happened, you might ask, especially since three of the four members of each group were young and presumably inexperienced. I’ve left something out, however. Those young musicians, some still in school, some already out in the professional world, are chosen by audition not only for their brilliant instrumental ability but, and more important, for their burgeoning artistry. Many audition, few are chosen.
And let’s not forget the fourth member in each of those remarkable groups, an older and, as referred to by Marlboro, a so-called “senior” imbedded amongst the junior musicians. Marlboro, as much a school as a music festival, seeks to guide young musicians through a work’s intricacies by placing a more experienced hand, heart, and mind in each group whenever possible. And so, senior Samuel Rhodes, viola, guided David McCarroll and Robin Scott, violins, Ysang Enders, cello, in the Berg; senior Carmit Zori, violin, did the same with David McCarroll, violin, Molly Carr, viola, and Tony Rymer, cello, in the Janáček; senior Lucy Chapman, violin, with Robin Scott, violin, Wenting Kang, viola, and Ahrim Kim, cello, in the Beethoven; and senior Kim Kashkashian, viola, with Alexi Kenney and Tessa Lark, violins, and Isang Enders, cello, in the Bartók.
None of the above-mentioned works were rehearsed with the assumption that they would necessarily be performed. In this respect, Marlboro is the exception rather than the rule among music festivals. No more than half of the groups achieving performance level make it onto the concert stage.
This summer, I was the designated senior with Robin Scott, violin, Danny Kim, viola, and Tony Rymer, cello, in a group that was to study Mozart’s D Minor String Quartet, K421. Robin, Danny, and Tony, already impressive musicians as well as outstanding instrumentalists, joined me as the second violinist in working on the issues that challenge all string quartets professional or not–intonation, ensemble, and, above all, musical coherence.
But this particular work–dark, brooding, and the only one of Mozart’s mature quartets in a minor key–challenged us in very specific ways. How were we to capture the breathless anxiety of the first movement; the gentle pulse of the second; the brooding intensity of the third, interrupted by its courtly inner trio; and the lilt and great variety of the last movement? One thing working for us was time itself and the luxury of the many rehearsals offered to us–a Marlboro hallmark. Unrushed, we were able to get to know each other’s musical inclinations, to delve into the music’s delicate nuances, and to search out its very essence by trial and error. Ideas seemed to ripen over days like gourmet cheese (or maybe not!). An essential truthfulness or rightness of, say, a proposed ritard at the end of a passage was sometimes only confirmed or condemned after several rehearsals. The process was not that different from the way our Guarneri String Quartet began rehearsing this very Mozart Quartet (the first music we ever played together) all those many years ago when we formed at Marlboro.
Although I was the purportedly wise, experienced, and definitely grey-haired senior in this group, it was impossible for me to forget during rehearsals that I myself had once been a junior at Marlboro. In 1959, my first summer there, Alexander (or Sasha as we called him) Schneider approached me, Leslie Malowany, viola, and Leslie Parnas, cello, in the dining hall and informed us that we were to study Bartok’s Second String Quartet with him. Sasha, renowned as a solo and chamber music violinist, conductor, and longstanding member of the great Budapest String Quartet, was unquestionably the commanding senior in this otherwise inexperienced group. From his second violin seat in rehearsal after rehearsal, Sasha taught, challenged, cajoled, goaded, and inspired us until the Bartók’s impressionistic first movement; its wild and almost demented second movement; and its final movement evoking a near-barren yet haunting moonscape gradually came into focus.
So this was how you approached the intricacies of a miraculous piece of music, and this was how you grappled with it as a performer. On July 10, 1959, Sasha and I, violins, Leslie M., viola, and Leslie P., cello, performed Bartók’s Second String Quartet at Marlboro. I remember it as a very creditable performance and certainly one I shall never forget.
The group I mentored did not get to perform Mozart’s D Minor Quartet this summer. At the weekly Thursday night faculty and staff meeting, all eligible performance works were shuffled on cards back and forth and on and off a large white board filled with concert dates. The main goal was to create interesting and varied programs and to ensure that all participants got a reasonably fair share of performance experience. Our Mozart remained off the board entirely for the first few minutes of discussion, then was put on as a second work in a proposed program, where it lasted for another few minutes before being taken off again when the program in question was judged too long.
At our last rehearsal following the meeting, Tony, Robin, Danny, and I greeted the news that we would not be performing the Mozart with equanimity. That is the way, the marvelous way, in which Marlboro operates. Yet, having worked so hard and so intensely on the quartet, a performance of some kind seemed in order. In our rehearsal room, and with only the walls and our very own ears as audience, we played through Mozart’s String Quartet in D Minor, K421.
Mozart is reported to have composed the second movement of this quartet while his wife, Constanze, was in the throes of giving birth to their first child, Raimund, in the very next room. Constanze later stated that the two dramatic sets of chords in this otherwise peaceful movement were her husband’s representation of her cries of pain.
If that is so, why not consider the entire quartet as a birth announcement for Mozart’s first son, and our quartet performance this summer in that little rehearsal room the work of four midwives, Robin, Arnold, Danny, and Tony, who delivered (rather well I must say) Mozart’s baby all over again.
Sign up to receive new stories straight to your inbox!