The American Quartet returns to Princeton with an atypical focus – infrequently-played music written in the United States between 1893 and 1971. The breezy Daniel Avshalomov, violist and a founding member of the 33-year-old quartet, says in a telephone interview from Portland, Oregon, "There are two reasons why music is not played much: First, It hasn’t been heard by enough people, and second it’s been heard by enough people but it’s no damn good. We’re playing music in the first category."

The quartet plays a two-concert series, Thursday, January 17, and Thursday, March 13, in Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium. Members of the quartet, in addition to violist Avshalomov, are violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, and cellist Wolfram Koessel. Carney, like Avshalomov, is a founding member of the group.

The five pieces on the January concert program include Roger Sessions’ "Canons: In Memoriam Igor Stravinsky." Sessions, a former member of the Princeton faculty who helped set in motion the university’s composition program, was among the American composers who wrote canons to memorialize Stravinsky after his 1971 death.

The program opens with Charles Ives’ "Scherzo: Holding Your Own." Avshalomov says, "It’s like a squirt in the face with a seltzer bottle. It’s over before you know it, a sort of slapstick routine."

Also included is Henry Cowell’s Third Quartet (1935), one of the first aleatory pieces of music: Cowell assigned no particular order to the movements of the piece. The performers decide on the sequence.

The March 13 program consists of works by Louis Gruenberg, Walter Piston, Ruth Crawford, and Antonin Dvorak. Dvorak’s "American Quartet," written while the composer lived in America, culminates the series.

"The two concerts are a survey of American string quartets, beginning just before 1900 and finishing at about the time of the American Quartet’s inception," Avshalomov says. "If we had gone beyond the date when the quartet was formed, we would have been deluged by living composers asking, `Why did you choose someone else’s work and not mine?’ All the composers to be performed are now dead."

The two-concert project "results from our long-standing relationship with the American Quartet," says University Concerts’ artistic director Nathan Randall. The relationship is a mutually happy one. "We love Richardson, the Princeton audience, and Nate," Avshalomov says.

The American Quartet has performed frequently in Princeton. In addition to giving single concerts, their seven-concert series called "Four-Five-Six," extending from 2001 to 2004, presented all the quintets and sextets by Mozart and Brahms, and a selection of Haydn string quartets. Early last year, the ensemble rescued the Princeton Concert Office by stepping in, at the last moment, for the Takacs Quartet, which was slated to perform but was stranded in Denver by a snowstorm. The substitution came so late that the U.S. 1 story featuring the new Takacs violist, Geraldine Walther, appeared in print (U.S. 1, February 14, 2007) while the Takacs group was sitting it out in Denver, hoping to be able to fly to New Jersey.

"The Takacs spent a day and a half at the Denver airport and couldn’t get out," Randall remembers. "We don’t cancel concerts unless the university is closed. When I found out that there were weather problems in Denver, I talked to the American Quartet manager, and asked if they would be willing to cover for the Takacs. The final decision was made at 9 a.m. the morning of the concert, a day after U.S. 1’s Takacs story appeared, (and) the last possible flight from Denver was cancelled. I was not the hero," Randall says, "just a competent manager. The American Quartet were the heroes. They had to rearrange their teaching schedules."

"It was nothing extraordinary," Avshalomov says. "We were available. It was an accident of our not being anywhere else. We came as close as we could to the program originally planned by Takacs."

Avshalomov was born in 1953 in New York City but thinks of himself as an Oregonian. The family moved when he was 18 months old and his father, Jacob, a Columbia University faculty member, was appointed conductor of the first youth orchestra in the U.S., the Portland Youth Philharmonic. Avshalomov’s mother is from Oregon originally. Not a professional musician, she played double bass. Son Daniel was visiting them in Portland at the time of this interview.

Both Avshalomov’s father and his grandfather are composers. "I didn’t have to be a composer," Daniel Avshalomov says. "My older brother is." The 1997 CD on Albany Records, "Three Generations Avshalomov," consists of compositions by the three composing Avshalomovs with non-composer Daniel performing on viola.

Avshalomov’s father was born in Tsingtao, China, the home of the brewery, and came to the United States in 1937 when he was 18. His grandfather, Aaron, was born in Siberia, studied at the Zurich, Switzerland, Conservatory, and moved to China near the time of the Russian Revolution. He lived in New York City from 1947 until his death in 1965.

"I went to concerts early," violist Avshalomov says. "I was probably carried to them before I was a year old." At five, he started violin. Around age 14 he shifted to viola.

"Nearly all violists of accomplishment start on violin," he says. "I switched because I was curious about the sound of the viola. As soon as I picked one up, I realized that I was never going back." He studied viola with violinists. "Nearly everyone who taught viola at the time in the Portland area was a violin teacher. Now there are plenty of viola teachers." He studied with Orrea Pernel in England and Switzerland, and also worked with the Amadeus Quartet in England.

At New York’s Juilliard School, where he earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Avshalomov was the principal violist of the Juilliard Orchestra for an unprecedented five years. The Aspen, Tanglewood, and Spoleto Festivals, as well as a handful of orchestras, have also seen his leadership as principal violist. He was a founding member of the conductorless Orpheus Chamber Ensemble.

In 1984, a decade after the founding of the American Quartet, he became a faculty member at New York’s Manhattan School of Music. He lives in New York City.

Avshamolov calls his first viola "a factory instrument. It had no pedigree whatsoever," he says. Now he plays a large Andrea Amati that dates from 1568. I ask him to repeat the date because at first I think I misheard the century. "It might have been a chest of drawers," he says. "It was cut down to 17 inches about 200 years ago and has a good sound. Today nobody plays a viola bigger than 17 or 17 1/2 inches." The size attributed to a viola is the length of its body, and does not include the fingerboard.

"Originally, violas were about 19 inches long, and played vertically in a country-fiddler position," Avshalomov says. "The way they were played and the things asked of the instrument changed from generation to generation. As string quartets became more sophisticated, so did the democracy of writing for viola." Violin virtuoso Paganini played viola, as did the first composers who wrote for string quartet: Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dvorak, another violist, wrote substantial viola parts for his chamber music.

On a different topic I wonder aloud to Avshalomov, "How do you settle arguments in the quartet?" "We make deals," Avshalomov says. "`I’ll play quietly here if you play quietly there.’ Or people lobby over a period of time. Once we’ve learned a piece we have the option of changing. You can find out what really works or what was the composer’s intent by playing in front of an audience. Then we can change things."

Since 2005 and the founding of the Great Wall of China International Music Academy, near Beijing, the American Quartet has been its quartet in residence. The ensemble returns to China in 2008 for the fourth time. The academy is a collaborative effort between American and Chinese music teachers.

I wonder whether visiting the country of his father and grandfather had a special meaning for Avshalomov. "I was glad of it, but everything has changed since they were there," he says. "Even the restaurants are different."

The interest of the American Quartet in China is not limited to Avshalomov’s personal connections. "We had an appetite to be in China," he says. "Much as we enjoy doing Europe, we thought it was time to pay some attention to the future. There is an astonishing number of astonishing young players in China. The interest in western music is fervent. Chinese musicians are acquiring an idiomatic sense of western music from people who tour there, from recordings, and from the presence of people like us."

Since western music is not imbedded in their history, Chinese musicians must learn to become comfortable with western compositions. "We accomplish that simply by asking them to do something, and asking them if they heard the difference. The young Chinese musicians have good ears. They learn more by listening and repeating than by reading books," Avshalomov says.

"There’s a certain imbalance: their technique is ahead of their musical awareness. They’re very good at double stops, bow strokes, and tone production, particularly variety of tone. But they don’t know what they’re trying to express or how to express it. When you ask where a phrase in Mozart is going, they don’t know what to say. We give them extra-musical encouragement. We try to persuade them to play a certain way because they feel it that way, not because their teacher told them to do it that way. Don’t forget that in China individual expression has been discouraged for several generations."

Because the American concerts of the American Quartet contain so much unfamiliar music, listeners may have a problem similar to that of Chinese musicians exposed to western music. The idiom may not be familiar. Avshalomov has this advice about how to listen to the quartet’s upcoming series: "Resist the temptation to compare. Take one work at time. Each piece has its own path."

American String Quartet, two-part series, Thursdays, January 17 and March 13, 8 p.m. Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. All-American program. $20 to $40. 609-258-4239.

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