Concert Preview: String groups just keep multiplying

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Miro Quartet -- Daniel Ching, John Largess, Josh Gindele, Sandy Yamamoto.

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

If the string quartet is truly a conversation among equals, it's getting to be a hubbub out there.

   
Miro Quartet, with Eliot Fisk, guitar
Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society

Program includes Arriaga's Quartet No. 3; Balada's Quintet for Guitar and Strings, Caprichos No. 1; Boccherini's Guitar Quintet in D major.

Where: Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $15-$35; 412-624-4129.

   

Thirty years ago, only a handful of professional quartets had anything approaching international status, among them the Budapest String Quartet, Juilliard String Quartet, Cleveland Quartet, Fine Arts Quartet, Guarneri Quartet and Tokyo String Quartet.

In an article published in 1980 but written several years earlier, the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians appended the following dire outlook to its definition of the string quartet genre:

"Its future is uncertain. The support now given to quartets of a high professional standing, for example by universities in the U.S. and in Britain, might suggest that it is assured. ... Yet equally if it fails to develop such new potential the end of the string quartet is quite certain."

Three decades later, not only has this apocalyptic view of the genre been averted, the field is flourishing. The industry support organization, Chamber Music America, claims more than 100 quartets as members, and it estimates that many more operate in the United States. While the classical music industry has had its struggles, the quartet genre is booming.

The pros of going pro

The clearest indication of the surge is not in audience increase. The Pittsburgh Chamber Music Society, for one, has seen audience fluctuation over the years for its concert at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.

Instead the sign is the ensembles themselves.

While one can debate the qualities of the top quartets today compared to the past, there's no denying the greater quantity of talented, professional groups now competing for your attention.

"There are more professional string quartets now than 25 years ago," says Margaret Lioi, president of Chamber Music America. "If you look at old programs, only the very famous quartets were doing the touring. When you look now, those groups are still touring [with different personnel] but you have this vast array of other groups, which are also touring, groups only 10 years old."

Year after year, presenting organizations such as PCMS book top-notch quartets, with nary a space for an unknown or untested group. Its upcoming season is no exception. Opening with Miro Quartet tomorrow, the season continues with the Emerson, Orion, Artemis and Pacifica quartets, before ending with a concert by violinist Gidon Kremer and his Kremerata Baltica.

What hasn't changed are the reasons to be a chamber musician: the autonomy in performing and programming music without the intervention of a conductor, director or management. Quartet players usually share equally in making business and artistic decisions.

"People saw the freedom in playing quartets," says Miro Quartet cellist Joshua Gindele, who hails from Wexford.

What they weren't seeing was career potential. But two developments have helped to make professional quartets more practical: performance opportunities and university residencies.

Gindele says you can trace those developments to "a huge explosion of string quartets" in the late '80s and then again in the mid-'90s. "And now there's a new generation, at the turn of the century."

In the past, the primary career paths for musicians were orchestral or operatic, teaching or soloing. Chamber music, on the other hand, was mostly seen as a private activity, done because musicians enjoyed it.

"There is a whole network of house concerts where people chose chamber groups to play in the setting of a home," says Lioi. "That has always existed."

The Phillips brothers -- the violinists of the Orion String Quartet -- were a bit of an anomaly in this regard.

"I got my appreciation for quartet playing from my dad, says Daniel Phillips. The former Squirrel Hill resident performed with his father, Eugene, in the Phillips Quartet. "When I was 14, I joined; later, my brother took my spot. We got the message that the highest level of music-making we could aspire to was quartet playing."

That includes solo playing. "Mozart wrote five pretty nice concertos for violin, but look at the string quartets and quintets," he says. "Beethoven wrote just one violin concerto, but look at all the quartets and trios. Forget it."

Performing opportunities abound for quartets, though they are not always traditional presenting societies and there is competition for them.

"There are probably more multidisciplinary presenters today than 30 years ago," says Lioi. "Then, there were chamber music societies and presenters and those were what quartets. Now, universities present quartets in their series, and halls like the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach have a chamber music series.

"As urban and suburban areas have grown, different performance arts centers have been built that have increased chamber-music performing opportunities."

As a result -- and because of the reduced booking costs of quartets compared with operas and orchestras -- art music is being heard all across the county, in small towns and unusual venues.

"It can go a lot of places an orchestra can't go," she says. "Joe's Pub in New York is now booking chamber music, and now getting a booking there is a coup because of the younger crowd." Locally, the South Side's Club Cafe occasionally books chamber music.

Universities, though, have played the biggest role in the quartet boom.

This occurred in the past to some degree, such as Pro Arte (University of Wisconsin at Madison), the Cleveland Quartet (Eastman School of Music) and the Juilliard Quartet. However, today, nearly every professional quartet is attached in some form to a university, college or institution. It's a symbiotic relationship. In return for concerts, teaching and coaching, the quartets receive a stable income and benefits that independent ensembles don't.

"We couldn't possibly live on our quartet income, unless we lived in a hovel and ate beans," says Phillips. The Orion is in residence in Mannes College of Music and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

In fact, his colorful contention is the case for probably every quartet working today. Not even the ultra-successful Emerson String Quartet operates without a residency. For decades it was associated with the University of Hartford; now it works with Stony Brook University. The Miro Quartet resides at the University of Texas at Austin, while the Pacifica Quartet has two residencies, at the universities of Chicago and Illinois.

"People started flocking to residencies," Gindele says. "That made a huge difference."

Universities have come to discover the benefits, too, of having a quartet on campus.

"Having a quartet in residence is a good tool to draw other faculty because it means there is a certain level of artistry in that community" says Lioi, "It means generally the quartet members are on the faculty, which is good for students and it means there will be concerts."

Locally, Carnegie Mellon University has had Cuarteto Latinoamericano in residence since 1987.

The cumulative effort of having quartets in residence has been students who are better prepared than ever to continue the boom of quartets.

"The level of training now for musicians at American conservatories is high -- they are almost bionic when they graduate," says Lioi."

If there's a downside, it's the competition for bookings.

"I think that breaking into the scene is incredibly difficult now," says Gindele. "You have to be savvy to have to come up with creative ways to make it work."

It is not as though the Miro emerged all that long ago -- along with the Pacifica Quartet in the mid '90s. It just shows how much the field has swelled with ensembles since then. That's why, even with all the awards Miro has accumulated -- Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Cleveland Quartet Award, chief among them -- the group still constantly looks to expand in other directions. One is the development of ClassicalLounge.com, a MySpace-like online meeting ground for lovers of a different type -- of classical music. It now has approximately 1,500 members.

"We were looking for a way to get more music out," says Gindele.

If quartets have to share the pie more than before, at least there is something to split. "It means quartets won't perform as much, because there are so many, but it means that we will all survive," he says. And that means that audiences ultimately win, especially those in smaller markets.

"That has been the good thing for the art," says Phillips, "that the average concertgoer can hear this music live."


Post-Gazette classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod can be reached at adruckenbrod@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1750.


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