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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 14,

1999. All rights reserved.

Brentano: Parts & Whole

One of the distinguishing features of a good string

quartet is the primacy of a group outlook. No matter what feats of

technical virtuosity are required of an individual player, the ultimate

musical success of a quartet depends on the ability of each member

to submerge himself in the community effort.

The need in a top-notch chamber music ensemble for balance between

individual excellence and commitment to the collective has been repeated

often; there may be no fresh ways to state the case.

Misha Amory, violinist of the Brentano Quartet, reveals his string

quartet mentality as he answers the phone someplace in the 715 area

code. "Where are you?" I ask, thinking in the singular, grammatically

speaking. "We," he answers, thinking grammatically plural,

"are off the coast of Wisconsin on an island in Lake Superior."

Still, a properly poised equilibrium between the parts and the whole

is a touchstone of the quality of a string quartet.

Named after Antonie Brentano, who many scholars believe was Beethoven’s

mysterious "immortal beloved," the Brentano Quartet has displayed

its musical merit at previous performances in Princeton. It has appeared

in both the university concerts series and the summer chamber music

concerts series. The Brentanos next sighting in Princeton will be

Tuesday, July 20, at 8 p.m., when they present the fourth of five

concerts in the 31st season of the Princeton University Summer Chamber

Music Concerts.

In addition to violist Amory, the ensemble consists of violinists

Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin and cellist Nina Maria Lee. The four

are joined on July 20 by pianist Thomas Sauer (the husband of Serena

Canin) for Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F minor, Opus 34. The program

also includes Haydn’s String Quartet in D major, Opus 71, No. 2 and

Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 3 in F major, Opus 73.

The quartet’s awards include the first Cleveland Quartet award (1995),

the Naumburg (1995), the Martin E. Segal award, given by New York

City’s Lincoln Center (1995), and the Royal Philharmonic Society Music

award for the most outstanding chamber music debut (1997). The Chamber

Music Society of Lincoln Center chose the Brentano in 1995 to participate

in its inaugural season of Chamber Music Society Two, designed for

outstanding young artists on the verge of international careers in

chamber music.

When it comes to musical matters, the quartet uses a democratic approach.

There is no delegation of authority where artistic essentials are

concerned. "We all discuss programming, interpretation, and repertoire,"

says Amory. "We try to play pieces that all four of us are enthusiastic


Of the four members of the quartet only violinist Canin

comes from a musical family. Both her parents are professional pianists,

Except for cellist Lee, who is 26, the quartet members are all 31

years old. The 31-year-olds — violinists Steinberg and Canin,

and violist Amory — met at New York’s Juilliard school as graduate

students. They had played together, not as a group of three, but in

pairs, and knew that they wanted to play in a quartet. Their search

for a cellist led them to Michael Kannen, who remained with the quartet

from its founding in 1992 until December of 1998 when Kannen left

the ensemble to spend more time with his family. "It was an amicable

parting," Amory says.

Nevertheless, replacing cellist Kannen was a touchy matter. "With

any new person, it’s a delicate thing," Amory says. "Every

person in a quartet has to make such a contribution. It’s a nerve-wracking

time for any quartet to make a change. We were lucky. Mark [Steinberg]

knew Nina [Maria Lee] from the El Paso Pro Musica Chamber Music festival.

She helped out by filling in for Michael [Kannen] at an earlier concert.

And we rehearsed to see if it was a good fit. We love her personality

and her music making."

For the time being, the quartet is treating Lee gently when it comes

to mundane but essential non-musical tasks. Presently, Canin arranges

the ensemble’s travel. Steinberg acts as liaison to the quartet’s

management. And Amory looks after financial concerns. "Nina [Lee]

is getting her bearings right now," Amory says. "We’ll hit

her with a few responsibilities later."

Amory was born in New York and grew up in Boston. Both his parents

are librarians. His first musical instruments were piano and violin,

and he began his violin studies at age six. In high school, he found

himself attracted to the viola. "I responded better to the nature

of its sound than I did to the violin," he says, "and I switched

to viola."

Amory holds degrees from Yale University and the Juilliard School.

In 1991 he won the Naumburg Viola award. He warms to the role of the

viola in a string quartet, enjoying its place in setting the sonority

of the ensemble. "The viola has to draw things together in a textural

way," he says. "It has a peculiar sound, strange dark, and

dusky. It stands apart from the other instruments in terms of sound."

The closest thing to a soul-mate in a string quartet for a viola is

the second violin. Both instruments sometimes sing out, and sometimes

support the musical lines asserted by the first violin or cello. "The

two inner voices have different roles, depending on the music,"

Amory says. "I like the variety."

Amory is married to violist Hsin-Yun Huang of the Borromeo Quartet.

"We lead parallel lives," he says, referring to the couples’

peripatetic professional pursuits.

In addition to being sought after as a performing group, the Brentano

is in demand for its coaching abilities — skills that have seen

the light of day in various venues, most recently in the 715 area

code, at Lake Superior’s Madeline Island Music camp, where the Brentano

worked with high school and college students during a one-week stay.

"It’s a good place to be," says Amory on the telephone, from

the island north of Minneapolis, which is closer to Duluth than to

Milwaukee, "because we can also rehearse and learn repertory."

Since being in residence is not a full-time matter, a musical group

can be in residence in more than one place at a time. The quartet

has been in residence at New York University since 1995. In addition,

the Brentano and Princeton are on the verge of a major new collaboration.

In September the quartet becomes Princeton’s first quartet in residence,

a three-year appointment. And as of the year 2000, the ensemble becomes

the quartet-in-residence at London’s Wigmore Hall.

As a coaching presence in Princeton, the Brentano has turned up three

times, most recently this past spring. "The first time was 1994,"

Amory says. "All four of us went. That was the beginning of our

relationship to Princeton. On subsequent occasions two or three of

us went. I was not one of them. I teach at Juilliard, so I wasn’t

as free as the others."

Part of the harvest of the Brentano’s previous presence in Princeton

was Milton Babbitt’s sixth string quartet. Babbitt, an emeritus professor

of music at Princeton, is known for his avant-garde compositions.

(U.S. 1, May 12) "It was a generous gesture," Amory says.

"Babbitt took an interest in us, and volunteered to write the

quartet for us. It’s a difficult piece for string quartet, with many

different kinds of difficulty." Foremost, Avery says, is "the

problem of unraveling the rhythmic and technical complexities. The

individual technical execution of the four parts is demanding. And

it’s not immediately obvious where the beat falls; there are frequent

rhythmic shifts too, and the meter may be five or seven."

The Brentanos’ presence at Princeton involves not only performance

and coaching, but also recording. It has the enthusiastic support

of Princeton president Harold T. Shapiro, music department chairman

Paul Lansky, and professor-composer Steven Mackey of the Princeton

music department’s certificate program in musical performance.

There are no fixed guidelines for the quartet in residence

role, says Amory. "It can mean different things, depending on

the quartet and the university. At Princeton it’s great for us because

the department is creative, and interested in our input. We were surprised

and touched that the first thing that came up was that the department

asked, `What are your interests?’" At this point the quartet has

no final agenda for its three years on campus, although they have

scoped out a variety of areas where they will take part.

During their first semester they intend to participate in courses

taught by others. One of these is a course designed by Mackey of the

Princeton program in musical performance (U.S. 1 December 4, 1996).

The course, which Amory calls "unprecedented," is designed

around the programming and repertoire that the Brentano is working

on. In addition, the Brentano will devote themselves to new string

quartets composed by students. Second semester the ensemble plans

to focus on coaching student chamber music groups.

"We’ll see what worked well, and what didn’t," says Amory,

"and let our plans unfold. We’ll start with one public recital

each semester."

The date for the public recital during the fall semester has already

been set for September 25, and details have been worked out to a large

extent. The appearance is to be a lecture-demonstration featuring

two guitar quintets by Steve Mackey, "Troubador Songs" and

"Physical Property." Mackey, whose instrument is electric

guitar, is expected to appear in the concert that will also feature

Schubert’s G major quartet.

The presence of the Brentano at Princeton is the culmination of mutual

desire over a period of time. "We’ve been interested in coming,"

says Amory, "and the music department has been interested in having

us, but it’s a matter of funding. We owe a debt of gratitude to a

generous individual who wishes to be anonymous, and who has funded

the three-year appointment."

I probe for details, and Amory consults with his colleagues in the

quartet, who are present in the room. The ensemble asserts itself

over any solo action that Amory might take, and he carries out the

will of the foursome, providing no information about the giver, and

simply restating the individual’s desire for the strictest anonymity.

— Elaine Strauss

Brentano String Quartet, Princeton University Summer

Concerts , Richardson Auditorium, 609-497-1642. Free tickets are

distributed at the Richardson Box Office beginning at 6 p.m. on the

day of the concert only. Tuesday, July 20, 8 p.m.

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