The Arianna String Quartet has achieved immortality. The University of Missouri, St. Louis, where the ensemble is in residence, has granted the group tenure. That means that regardless of changes in its personnel, the quartet will endure as a permanent entity at the university, presumably till the end of time.
The Arianna performs in the Princeton University Summer Chamber Music series on Tuesday, July 10, in Richardson Auditorium. The program includes music by Franz Joseph Haydn, Dmitri Shostakovich, and Ludwig van Beethoven. (The series ends on Monday, July 16, with a performance by the Biava Quartet.)
Founded in 1968 by Princeton resident Barbara Sand, the concert series presents excellent young ensembles before they become internationally famous. The Emerson, Orion, St. Lawrence, and Tokyo string quartets appeared in the series before they became known throughout the world.
The Arianna Quartet was formed in 1992 in the graduate program at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio. They studied with the Vermeer Quartet at Northern Illinois University from 1993 to 1996. In residence at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, from 1996 to 2000, they have been in residence at the University of Missouri, St. Louis, since 2000. The quartet’s present members are John McGrosso, first violin; David Gillham, second violin; Robert Meyer, viola; and Kurt Baldwin, cello. Baldwin is the only original member of the group.
In a telephone interview from St. Louis, first violinist John McGrosso, who was a member of the St. Louis Orchestra before joining the quartet in 1998, notes the difference in intensity between playing in the two organizations. “Playing in a symphony is like going through every city in Europe in a week. You just have time to peek into each cathedral. With an orchestra, the music gets smaller, and you have a problem keeping up as far as the notes are concerned. In a quartet, you have time to see how the music affects you. You explore it from the inside. You get to spend a lot of time crawling around inside each piece.”
He says the ensemble has had more personnel changes than they would like, and they have been a mixed blessing. “With every one, the group has grown.” McGrosso worked with the Vermeer independently as a graduate student. “When I joined Arianna I felt that we already had a family relationship because of their work with the Vermeer. Even though we had no coachings together we shared a common ancestry and had a common history. I felt like we were speaking the same language.”
McGrosso says that in the original quartet, the first and second violinists switched parts, but he has always played first violin. “David Gilham is comfortable playing second violin. He brings firepower to that part of the quartet. He used to play first violin. Along with the violist, Robert Meyer, he brings energy and presence to the quartet. Those inner voices are important.”
McGrosso was born in Bloomington, in central Illinois, in 1961 to a clarinetist father and a pianist mother. “We had extraordinary access to culture,” he says. “There were five different radio stations that played mostly classical music and two PBS television stations.”
He started violin at age four with the Suzuki method, which stresses playing and performing, rather than reading music. “It was an excellent start,” he says. “My parents tweaked what the method taught. They knew that no single method is complete and that there are advantages and disadvantages to any approach. People are overly-critical when they expect a method to do something it was not designed for. That’s why it’s good to switch teachers occasionally.”
McGrosso, like all the members of Arianna, lives in St. Louis. He is married to Ruth Price, a pianist. The couple’s daughter, Lucy, is almost five.
The University of Missouri encourages Arianna’s performances both in St. Louis and elsewhere. They have played three concerts of Beethoven quartets in the spring in St. Louis, and will complete the cycle with three concerts in the fall. The ensemble has toured in Japan and is making plans to return to Europe.
McGrosso’s comments about Arianna’s Princeton program reveal his sensitivity to the variety of his musical experiences and his ability to explain the music to non-professionals. About the Haydn String Quartet Op. 76, No 2 (“Quinten”) he says, “Haydn is underrated. Many people see Haydn as an opening act for Mozart. This quartet is an example of how the music becomes bigger as you spend more time with it. The darkness of the first movement contrasts with the lightness of the second movement. The third movement follows the same pattern of dark and light; there is a dark minuet and an extremely exuberant trio. The finale has a gypsy quality. You realize how eastern European Haydn was. The extraordinary contrasts help make the quartet so popular.”
About the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 1, Op. 49, McGrosso says, “The piece was written after Shostakovich’s son was born. It was a happy time in his personal life. The first movement almost has the warmth of Ravel. The second movement, a theme and variations, hints at some of the darkness to come later in the composer’s life. It’s chromatic. Something is looming, though the theme is trying to be optimistic.” Shostakovich’s life, like that of all Soviet artists, was at risk with each new creation, if it failed to please the arbitrary Joseph Stalin. “The third movement is a scherzo. It’s Mendelssohn-like, but sinister. It’s more a midsummer night’s nightmare than a midsummer night’s dream, even though it’s not as scary as later Shostakovich compositions. The last movement is joyful and exuberant; it might have been written by a 20th century Haydn.
“Unlike Mozart, who plays off one theme against another, both Haydn and Shostakovich take one motive and color it in a huge variety of ways to create drama. That gives unity to their music.”
McGrosso believes it is possible to find a relationship among any three pieces. As for his comments about Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 59, No. 2, he implies links to both the Haydn and Shostakovich pieces to be played. “Opus 59, No. 2 is the most compressed and haunted of the Opus 59 quartets. You know from the opening that it was written by somebody under extraordinary pressure. There’s a lot of silence in the first movement. Perhaps Beethoven was coming to terms with his deafness. The second movement is not exactly programmatic, but one commentator said that it was written when Beethoven was contemplating a starry night. The third movement is based on a Russian theme. It begins daintily and ends up in a frenzy. The last movement is exuberant and triumphant. The piece is a trip from the tragedy of the first movement, through the real beauty of the second movement. In the third movement, there’s a juxtaposition of melancholy nervousness with drama. And the whole thing ends joyously.
“You get an extraordinary feeling of the power of Beethoven’s character and personality. That’s another impression that comes from being able to spend time with a composer. It’s amazing that Beethoven’s scope is the work of just one person. Each piece is such a complete world. Each piece has different kinds of strength.”
McGrosso’s gift for musical commentary is on public display during Arianna’s St. Louis performances, where cellist Kurt Baldwin provides the written program notes. “He goes into more detail than I do,” McGrosso says. “I just talk and outline the narrative flow through the pieces on the program.”
The Arianna String Quartet, Tuesday, July 10, 8 p.m. Princeton University Summer Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Musicians include John McGrosso and David Gilham on violin, Robert Meyer on viola, and Kurt Baldwin on cello. Program includes works by Beethoven, Shostakovich, and Haydn. Free tickets available at the box office at 6:30 p.m. 609-631-7884.
Also, The Biava Quartet, Monday, July 16, 8 p.m. Musicians include Austin Hartmann and Hyunsu Ko on violin, Mary Persin on viola, and Jacob Braun on cello.