American String Quartet – Four play in Aspen
August 19, 2010
ASPEN – Becoming a string quartet player is an odd thing. You choose, usually at a young age, to partner with three other people who, ideally, will be at your side for years to come. Given the obligations, the chores to tackle and the time commitment, the relationship between players is more akin to a four-way marriage than a group of siblings. You have carved out one niche of the music realm, leaving aside the others, including the grander glories of the symphonic repertoire.
And for what? A career that is heavy on argument, compromise, sublimation of one’s own personality and a certain kind of anonymity.
So why do the members of the American String Quartet – violist Daniel Avshalomov, cellist Wolfram Koessel, and violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, who co-founded the combo 35 years ago – seem so pleased with themselves, boastful almost, about their decision to focus on this particular form of chamber music? The primary reason is the music itself.
The members of the American – like quartet players everywhere – will tell you that the quartet repertoire occupies an elevated level in the compositional achievements of mankind; it can seem like the members of the American have to restrain themselves from screaming, “This is the best damn music humans have ever written, by far, and you’d have to be deaf and blind not to see that!” The quartet members also subscribe to a certain personality type, and an approach to music – team players – that suits them just fine.
They are, to use Avshalomov’s word, “quartet-niks” – musicians who are drawn to the quartet repertoire and the quartet way of life in the geeked-out fashion of a “Star Trek” fan or a lover of vintage VW Beetles.
“Some people will just inherently read a quartet – Haydn or Mozart – and the feeling is, it’s such a rush: ‘This is how I like music to be,'” said Winograd, who joined the American in 1990. “A soloist might sit down and say, ‘I enjoy quartets. It’s a diverting way of spending an evening.’ But we are all just grabbed by it.”
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The American String Quartet marks its birthday – and its 36th summer of making music in Aspen – with a recital on Saturday, Aug. 21, at the Benedict Music Tent. The quartet often brings outside players into their concerts – especially in Aspen, where they have a unique opportunity to make music with old friends – to add a quintet to the program, but this concert will focus on core quartet repertoire: one from Bartok, famed for pouring his deepest thoughts into his six quartets; one by Haydn, who so loved the form that he wrote nearly a hundred of them; and Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden,” a cornerstone of chamber music. (In an Aug. 10 recital at Harris Hall, the American similarly focused solely on the quartet form, with a program of a Beethoven quartet, Dvorak’s “American” quartet, and “Beneath Thy Tenderness of Heart,” a quartet by Aspen Music Festival composer-in-residence George Tsontakis that had been commissioned for the American, and premiered in Aspen in 1990.)
The American String Quartet was launched, to some extent, in Aspen. Carney began exploring quartet repertoire with three of her fellow Juilliard students in 1974, in New York. They quickly won the prestigious Naumburg Competition. But at the time, they didn’t even have a name, and to play the competition, the foursome exhausted their entire repertoire of three pieces. It was the following year, in Aspen, that Gordon Hardy, the president of the Aspen Music Festival and the dean of Juilliard, invited the foursome, all students in Aspen, to make their first public appearance. That spurred Carney and her mates to think of themselves as a quartet, and to take a name – the American, in honor of the upcoming Bicentennial.
The members’ love of quartet music, though, extends back even further. Carney recalls her parents, both New York musicians, throwing Saturday night quartet parties, with pizza, kids in sleeping bags, and a bunch of musicians, children and adults, playing quartets. At Meadowmount, a summer school in upstate New York, she gravitated toward violin teacher Josef Gingold, who steered her toward Mozart’s concertos. Winograd, whose father, Arthur, was the founding cellist of the famed Juilliard Quartet, has similarly fond memories of family and friends gathering to play quartet music. Koessel – who is new to the group, having joined in 2005 – says “Chamber music was the thing I did every week” in his childhood in Germany.
And Avshalomov, who had decided at age 10 to be a quartet player, spent his first summer in Aspen, in 1969, obsessing over finding quartet partners. “Except for the compulsory playing and washing dishes, I was trying to get everyone to read quartets,” said Avshalomov, who joined the American in 1976. “I was trying to find all the quartet-niks. And there were a couple.”
The current members of the American all seem ideally suited to their chosen line of music. Sitting together in a condo near Lift 1A, the four are at ease with one another. No one voice dominates the conversation; they comfortably take turns answering questions, making jokes, and drawing comparisons between chamber musicians and soloists, taking pains to be gentle in describing the latter.
“One thing is, quartet-niks think the music is bigger than they are. And they are people who can play and listen at the same time,” Avshalomov said.
“You work with three other people whose ideas you respect and listen to and want to hear,” Carney added.
“The soloist mentality wouldn’t want that at all,” Winograd concluded.
That sense of team playing distinguishes chamber musicians, and in the American there is a pronounced pride in the teamwork. At one point they bring up soccer teams, and it is an apt parallel: Many soccer players are known to emphasize the team aspect – the beauty of a pass, the instinctual knowledge of what a teammate is about to do – above the final score, and this exists in quartets as well.
“Conductors always say, ‘I wish my string section would play like chamber musicians,” Avshalomov said, “listening to each other in that way.”
Even within chamber music, the quartet has an exalted place. “A lot of great soloists play chamber music – but trios or sonatas, not quartets,” Koessel said. “There seems to be something about the string quartet that they can’t play. There are problems to be solved that they can’t do in such a short time.”
And even within the world of the string quartet, the American believes it places uncommon importance on the teamwork that exists between the composers and the interpreters. Carefully avoiding the mentioning of names, they pointed out that there are quartets that are interested in crafting a certain identity for themselves. The members of the American are more interested in spotlighting the music, not the musicians.
“We love it when people walk away from our concerts saying, ‘Wasn’t that a gorgeous Beethoven quartet?'” Winograd said. “Whereas when Heifetz played, I don’t think people walked away saying, ‘What a great Beethoven concerto.’ He wanted you to say, ‘That’s a great Heifetz performance.’ It all had to do with Heifetz.”
“I think people listening to our music, they know they’re going to hear the music Beethoven wanted you to hear,” Avshalomov said.
“Music first – I’ve heard that in reviews, comments. We play with a great deal of integrity, honesty,” Winograd said.
That approach stems in large part from the view that the music stands brilliantly on its own, and needs no theatrics or embellishments. There is a conviction on the part of the American members that the quartet form got special treatment from the greatest of composers; they point to the fact that many of the best composers spread out their quartet writing over the full span of their lives. Beethoven started out writing outstanding quartets, and only got better as he aged; the late Beethoven quartets, the American members say, are a rare example of pieces they never tire of playing. Bartok’s quartets were spread out over 30 years. Shostakovich took his time getting to the quartet form, but then seemed to put into them everything he had learned, devoting much of his later years to building one of the great quartet cycles.
“The repertoire is staggering,” Winograd said. “There’s so much. And it’s the greatest music. Bartok’s six quartets – they’re all right at the top of what he did. Beethoven’s 16 quartets. These were like a mirror into their souls. It’s hard to find another form like that.”
Near the top of the list is “Death and the Maiden,” which Schubert composed after a serious illness, and the knowledge that his own end was coming.
“It’s very emotional, very dramatic. You can let it wash over you and you still get the story,” Avshalomov said.
“It’s a guaranteed smash hit,” added Carney.
“Safe to say, every night on Earth, ‘Death and the Maiden’ is being performed,” said Avshalomov.
The quartet members confess that there are pieces that can get tired-sounding, and need to be set aside for a stretch of time. Other pieces, like “Death and the Maiden,” are dynamic enough that they keep returning: “One night it may be more death, the next night, more maiden,” Avshalomov said.
But the members believe that, even after three and a half decades, the American has not become stale, that there is still much more to be discovered, tried out, mastered and returned to. The arrival five years ago of Koessel, they agree, was a breath of fresh air. Koessel himself says that entering the quartet was “like sitting in a Rolls Royce; there’s so much in place.” But Carney said that Koessel wasn’t afraid to tinker with the engine.
“Wolfram put a new spin on things. He provoked us. Changed us,” she said. “He came in not just wanting to fit in, but to bring us new ideas. We started to look at it fresh again.”
Among the recent products of this latest incarnation is “Schubert’s Echo.” The album, released last week, opens with Schubert’s Quartet in G – a piece not as well known as “Death and the Maiden,” but more challenging and emotionally far-reaching – followed by works by Berg and Webern that could have been written as a response to Schubert.
Avshalomov, whose father was a composer and conductor, said that when he decided, at age 10, to be a quartet player, he had no idea just what that meant, aside from playing the quartet literature.
“I didn’t know any more about the life than the boy who says he wants to be a fireman,” he said. “I had the good fortune of making the right choice.”