When I was 16 years old, an extraordinary event occurred. The Tokyo String Quartet played a concert in my living room.
I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was 1981 and it was pivotal moment for the Tokyo Quartet. Not only were they going through their first major personnel change, they were welcoming their first non-Japanese member. Peter Oundjian was a superstar. He was young, good-looking, virtuosic and outgoing. He totally transformed the quartet, an ensemble that up until then was no stranger to success.
So how did it come to be that the Tokyo Quartet chose to give their very first concert with their new, hot shot first violinist in my living room? Well, the Quartet’s relationship with Princeton had already had quite the run. Some of you may remember Barbara Sand, an extraordinary woman who started the Princeton Summer Concerts Series. Barbara invited the Tokyo Quartet to Princeton many times where they gave groundbreaking concerts, many of them under the stars of the courtyard of Princeton’s Graduate College. I remember those concerts well.
So, at that delicate moment the Quartet called Barbara to say that they wanted to give a house concert in Princeton to thank the audience for all of their support and my parents — both longtime volunteers with the Summer Concerts — wisely offered their living room.
I remember sitting on the steps that led to our living room early the morning of the concert, still in my bathrobe, listening to them rehearse. I could hardly believe my good fortune. The music to Hugo Wolf’s Italian Serenade was literally brand new. Peter Oundjian struggled to keep it open, frantically turning down the corners of the pages and breaking the spine.
After rehearsal we spent the afternoon talking and eating. Peter Oundjian was all charm — funny and outgoing — a real contrast to the reserve of his other three colleagues. That night I quietly carried my tape recorder into the living room (okay now I’m really dating myself) and recorded every note of the glorious evening (ssh…don’t tell). I listened to that recording for years and if tape recorders were still readily accessible, I’d still be listening to it.
Peter’s debut was a smash success and Princeton loved the quartet even more, if that was possible.
After 44 glorious years and several more personnel changes (only the violist remains from the original group), the Tokyo Quartet is disbanding at the end of this season.
In a note to their fans, Martin Beaver, the group’s current first violinist said “It is a difficult prospect to replace one long-standing quartet member. To replace two of them simultaneously is a Herculean task. With the retirement of our colleagues in our minds, we increasingly felt over the last few months that the most fitting way we could honor and celebrate our quartet’s long and illustrious career was to bring it to a graceful close. Warmest thanks to all the Tokyo Quartet’s audiences, past and present, who have supported and cheered us along the way.”
Princeton certainly ranks among the audiences who have cheered the Tokyo Quartet along the way and it is only appropriate that we have one last chance to extend our warmest thanks to them. The Tokyo String Quartet will play in Princeton for the last time on Wednesday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. Though it’s not in my parents living room and I won’t be able to attend the rehearsal in my pajamas, Richardson Auditorium is definitely the next best thing. In fact, it is the site of many of the quartet’s iconic recordings made with Peter Oundjian in the 1980s. I am also happy to announce that the concert will be offered as a free event — a musical gift from Princeton University Concerts to the community of fans that has loved this ensemble for as many years as I have.
Marna Seltzer is director of Princeton University Concerts and sits on the board of the Summer Concert Series. This reminiscence has been posted on the Concert Office website, www.princetonuniversityconcerts.org. All tickets for the free concert have been reserved, but a line for returned tickets will form at 6:30 p.m .