Monday, August 6, 2012

The Tokyo Quartet plays Beethoven

Over the last several weeks, I have attended several concerts at Yale's Chamber Music Festival in Norfolk. When I walked into the vaunted Shed last Saturday, I knew we were in for something special.

Audiences have long voted with their feet. I'm sure the Norfolk Festival was hoping for good crowds when they announced that all of the string quartets of Beethoven would be played this summer. I certainly was excited.

So it was disappointing to see at early performances that attendance was not what one may have hoped for. Only one line of cars lined the road.

But on Saturday evening, there were four lines, plus a big blue bus that blew exhaust onto our picnic. My friend, Darko Tresnjak, the new Artistic Director of Hartford Stage (and a bigger fan of music than most musicians), was there. Jim Remis, Chair of the Hartford Symphony Board, was there with his wife, Nancy, situated in their customary front row seats. Many festival students -- noticeably missing in earlier concerts -- were there in droves.

This night was different, because it was the first time all summer we would hear Beethoven played by the Tokyo Quartet, which recently announced that they will disband after next summer. Because of this, every concert they play from hereon will be imbued with a certain aura, a quality that bespeaks of an end to an era.

I have long wondered how string quartets thrive and survive, year in and year out. If a relationship between two people is fraught with varying degrees of wonder and peril, how does it work among four strong-willed individuals? How do they get along?

The Tokyo Quartet, established in 1969, is not unlike other quartets who have gone through personnel changes over the course of their history. Only the violist, Kazuhide Isomura (who, in an uncharacteristic solo turn, played affectingly two weeks prior), is a charter member. The two most recent additions, the Canadian violinist Martin Beaver, and the English cellist Clive Greensmith, are brilliant chamber musicians who have blended in with Messrs. Ikeda and Isomura with extraordinary panache. I remember hearing the Tokyo Quartet in residence at Yale in the mid 1980s. They were great then, and they are great now.

Having said that, these four men are not the least bit nostalgic. On a very hot and humid evening, they came to play. And from the first sounds of Beethoven's String Quartet in A minor, op. 132, it was glorious, each player entering, one at a time. (The trio of the second movement must have been a favorite of Brahms, for his Third Symphony is positively infected with the same rhythmic discombobulation. Brahms might have loved knowing this Beethoven work would share program space with a work of his.) The central slow movement, longest of the five, had the audience rapt. I was not certain how they could go on from there.

The second half, with clarinetist David Schifrin joining the four to perform the Brahms Quintet, was beautifully played. After the last notes, the audience were as one, spellbound, unwilling to break the silence. In years of concert going, it was the longest silence after a performed piece I have ever experienced.

But I will long remember the Beethoven.

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