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Living that #QuartetLife

By UMS Lobby

Written by Doyle Armbrust

Playing in a string quartet is both exhilarating and infuriating. Often simultaneously.

Spektral Quartet

Photo courtesy of Elliot Mandel

Those of us that have chosen this path spend more time with our quartet-mates than our families — seriously, ask the guys after the show, or any professional — on a quixotic mission to sculpt the perfect phrase, unified bow stroke, and group intonation. Yes, every musician in classical music is chasing down these goals to some extent, but there is something unique about the string quartet: an ensemble that won’t bat an eye at spending two hours in a rehearsal tuning eight seconds of music, to use a very real-world example.

The string quartet player sits on a fence for their entire career. This fence divides the Grove of Cooperation from the Forest of Virtuosity, to run with this metaphor for a moment. Unlike the admirable position of sitting in the string section of an orchestra, the responsibility of a full 25% of the music lies with a single person. There is no such thing as riding out a bout of illness, tough mental health day, or recent argument with a spouse by leaning on one’s section on a given night. It’s all up to you. Not only that, but you must shine as a brilliant soloist in one moment and then instantly pivot to a supporting and ego-less role in the next.

And this is just one element of many in this absurd career…

You must also be willing to enter any airport jetway or restaurant around the world and be willing to smile when the flight attendant or host asks the inevitable, “So, are you going to play something for us?” This happens no less than 100% of the time.

“So what’s your day job?” and “How much did your instrument cost?” are other omnipresent strangers-on-a-plane nuggets, but this is getting a little “inside baseball.”

Aside from Arnold Steinhardt’s exceptional writing about his years as first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet (go ahead and add Indivisible By Four to your Kindle wish list) and the occasional documentary or cringe-worthy Hollywood drama (looking at you, A Late Quartet), this particular slice of life is not particularly well-documented.

Danish String Quartet

Danish String Quartet

I do not know the members of the Danish Quartet personally, though I have always admired their stellar playing, but there are certain components of #QuartetLife that appear to be universal, and I thought I’d take this opportunity to let you in on some of them…

The first is that, even today, many composers consider writing a string quartet as a fraught and daunting task, given the fact that once grandpappy Haydn got this genre of classical music hopping back in the mid-18th century, it quickly gained popularity and composers like Beethoven, Bartók, and Carter saved some of their most exalted creativity for this forum.

Why? One likely reason is the transparency of the sound of four voices sharing a complementary timbre, or flavor of sound. This is also one very specific — and often hair-pulling-ly frustrating — reason why the work is never done for a performing string quartet. There is no reaching the summit…there is only the next peak to climb.

Listen to the opening phrase of the Haydn Op. 20, No. 2 — a bit of music I love in part because it feels not so distant from the music of the Baroque period. The cello lofts into a simple, delightful melody as the viola outlines the harmony with short strokes beneath. This is all taken place in C Major, a key with which any (even occasional) listener to classical music is intimately familiar. Digging a bit deeper than the charm of this lovely melody for a moment, both instruments are bending their E-naturals (the third note in the C Major scale) downward to find that sweet spot where all the wavelengths are vibrating in perfect rapport. But the open ‘E’ string on the violin sits higher than this adjusted ‘E’ in the low strings, and there are plenty of open ‘E’-string notes in the violins to come.

You can start to see why most quartet players are on an anxiety spectrum…and are never not rehearsing.

Haydn is revered in part because he creates such beauty with such a concise musical palette, and because his rhythms and harmonies take unexpected and often puckish left turns. Keep an ear out for these moments (pro-tip: there’s a particularly good one about a minute into the fourth movement fugue). Also, because you have the great good fortune of listening to one of the finest quartets around, notice when the group sounds big — not loud, but immense — as this is only possible through the expert tuning of the players, when all those sound waves are spinning around the room, uninhibited by even the slightest misalignment.

Another…ahem…thrilling aspect of quartet life comes with persuading traditional presenters to program anything other than Haydn/Mozart/Beethoven/etc. “We don’t program new music,” I was reprimanded by a presenter just last month when I pitched a program including Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 3 and Ruth Crawford Seeger’s String Quartet, both of which are…wait for it…OVER 80 YEARS OLD.

Thankfully you are in the good (and creatively minded) hands of UMS, though, and I’m so envious that you get to experience the Danish String Quartet play Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 1, “Ten Preludes.”

These “short stories” for string quartet have more in common with Haydn than it may appear at first listen. Consider how transparent is the writing here, between the moments of fantastic dramatic chaos. I’m particularly fond of the Danish Quartet’s interpretation of these pithy little movements. There is a lustiness to their playing that, just like one of George Saunders’s mind-bending short stories, actualizes a fully formed and multi-hued world in a just a few brief minutes.

Now, on to Beethoven. I have yet to interview a quartet member that doesn’t all but genuflect when the quartets of Ludwig van are mentioned. But why? It may be generally agreed upon that he was a genius, but again, why? In the case of his string quartets, I believe it comes down to the way Beethoven merges the transparency (there’s that word again) of Haydn with an altogether cutting-edge approach to string writing. Haydn and Mozart considered the ease of playability in their music, but Beethoven wasn’t about to be boxed in by such silly constraints. “Beethoven doesn’t give a …” is a common refrain in my quartet when we encounter a particularly gnarly passage that has the fingers in knots, or asks for total seamlessness while treacherously skipping between strings in a lyrical moment.

This brings us to our final insider bit of knowledge about string quartet life: The Specter of History. In our field, thar be giants: Amadeus Quartet, Guarneri Quartet, Cleveland Quartet, Alban Berg Quartet, just to name a few. And they’ve all performed or recorded a piece like the Opus 135 hundreds of times between them. So why does the world need to hear yet another quartet interpret these mystical pieces? This is a complicated question, but the simple answer is that each ensemble can’t help but insert themselves into a historic work. My favorite recording of this piece features the Alban Berg Quartet, but even if the Danish gents were to copy the German quartet’s every musical choice, it would still sound like the Danish Quartet.

This is a profoundly good argument for why we pay a babysitter, or cough up the cash for a season subscription, to hear music that’s been around for decades or even centuries. In this Beethoven, pay close attention to the third movement: Lento assai, cantate e tranquillo. This is the movement that for me offers a quartet the most room to put their stamp on the piece, with its hymn-like, heart-tugging harmonies that seem to change shape right before our ears. The version you hear today is the only one of its kind. The same Danish Quartet will sound distinctly different when they play Kaufmann Hall in New York two days from now.

Let me leave you with a friendly suggestion. If you queue up for an autograph or selfie with the Quartet after the show, bypass the questions they will have fielded at every stop on this tour: “Where are you going next?” or “What violin do you play on?” Instead, blow their collective minds with something like, “What was your takeaway moment from tonight’s concert?” or “What do you love about playing the Abrahamsen?” Then, look for that twinkle of gratitude in their eyes.


Get tickets to hear the Danish String Quartet on Thursday, November 15.

Doyle ArmbrustDoyle Armbrust is a Chicago-based violist and member of the Spektral Quartet. He is a contributing writer for WQXR’s Q2 Music, Crain’s Chicago Business, Chicago Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and formerly, Time Out Chicago.

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