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This article was prepared for the September 22, 2004

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New Members Stimulate Classical Quartet

The perceptive Martin Beaver, first violinist of the Tokyo

String Quartet and its newest member, understands how a

string quartet functions, and how it assimilates a new

participant. A frequent chuckler, he is a comfortable

conversationalist. By the time our telephone interview is

finished, he has supplied copious material about the

natural history of the string quartet, a species that

operates within tight tolerances.

To keep audiences on the edge of their seats, the players

must deliver the spice of individual assertiveness, while

avoiding anarchy. To stay alive artistically, they must

embrace change while preserving the musical identity of

the ensemble. And all this must be accomplished, Beaver

suggests, on a one-piece-at a time,

one-movement-at-a-time, one-measure-at-a-time basis.

Playing in string quartets is paying attention to details,

he says.

Princeton hears how the Tokyo Quartet, in its latest

configuration, handles these challenges when the ensemble

opens the Princeton University Concerts chamber series on

Thursday, September 23 in Richardson Auditorium. The

program includes Franz Joseph Haydn’s Quartet in G minor,

Op. 74, No. 3 ("The Rider"), Alexander Zemlinsky’s Op. 25

String Quartet, and Bedrich Smetana’s Quartet in E minor

("From My Life"). The members of the ensemble are Martin

Beaver, first violin; Kikuei Ikeda, second violin;

Kazuhide Isomura, viola; and Clive Greensmith, cello.

Princeton and the Tokyo Quartet have a long-standing

relationship. Soon after its founding in 1969, the

ensemble appeared at the Princeton Summer Chamber Music

Concerts, and it has returned to Princeton repeatedly. For

a release on the BMG label, completed in 1993, it recorded

the 17 Beethoven String Quartets in Richardson Auditorium.

The new Tokyo is having a new go at recording the

Beethoven String Quartets. The three Opus 59 quartets are

slated to be released on CD by Harmonia Mundi in December,

2005. Their recording of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s last

three quartets, the King of Prussia Quartets, on the

Biddulph label is expected in spring, 2005.

Over the years, the membership of the Tokyo has gradually

become less Japanese. It stands now at two Japanese and

two non-Japanese players. Interestingly, however, all four

have Japanese wives. Established in New York City 35 years

ago by four Japanese musicians who defied a deflated yen

in order to study at Juilliard, the ensemble acquired its

first non-Japanese member in 1981 when Canadian Peter

Oundjian became its first violinist. Ukrainian Mikhail

Kopelman replaced Oundjian in 1996. English cellist Clive

Greensmith brought the non-Japanese membership to two in

1999. And Michael Beaver kept it there when he replaced

Kopelman in 2002. The two Japanese members of the ensemble

are Kazuhide Isomura, viola, a founding member; and Kikuei

Ikeda, second violin, who has been a member of the

ensemble since 1974.

The gap between the west and Japan within the quartet has

gradually eroded. Its two Japanese members have spent the

bulk of their professional lives in the United States.

First violin Beaver points out that all the

instrumentalists have studied in America and have American

teachers in common. "That helps achieve a unanimity of

sound," he says.

Canadian Beaver, who holds a British passport and thinks

of himself as British, believes that he and British-born

Greensmith bring to the ensemble an island-dweller’s

outlook that beneficially matches the world view of the

Japanese players. "Two of us are from Japan, an island,"

he says, "and two are from Britain, an island. It’s a good

balance. The way islanders relate is similar. There’s a

definite code of conduct, and standards of behavior.

There’s a certain formality. The island background helps

Clive and me understand and feel closer to our Japanese


Beaver, 36, was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba, to two

teachers of French. He started violin in Quebec at age

four, when his father was on sabbatical, and continued his

studies after returning to Winnipeg. He describes his

father, an organist and choir director, as "a

semi-professional. His influence was a big part of my

becoming musician," Beaver says.

A student of Victor Danchenko, Josef Gingold, and Henryk

Szeryng, Beaver has held positions at the Royal

Conservatory of Music in Toronto and the University of

British Columbia. For six years, just before joining the

Tokyo, he was on the faculty at the Peabody Conservatory

of Music of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He was

a founding member of two Canadian ensembles: the Toronto

String Quartet and Triskelion, a string trio.

Invited to talk about joining the Tokyo, an existing

quartet, Beaver sketches the magnitude of the question,

and inquires, "How much time do you have?" Then he digs

in. "It was a great honor to be asked to try out and to be

asked to join," he says. "It was a big step in my life.

Prior to this I hadn’t been in a full time chamber group.

I wasn’t a complete stranger to string quartets. The

Toronto String Quartet only met twice a year, but over the

years we got through quite a bit of repertoire."

The Tokyo auditioned Beaver by inviting him to play Franz

Schubert’s "Death and the Maiden" quartet and Haydn’s

quartet Op 20, No. 5. Beaver calls them "works that they

thought would be telling, very revealing." The playing was

a satisfying encounter. "When we first read together, it

felt very good, very comfortable," Beaver says. "As the

new guy I was concerned to fit in. The members of the

Tokyo Quartet have always been individuals with strong

ideas. I was equally concerned about contributing in terms

of my own musical ideas and making those fit within the

group’s musical direction. The process is still going on

now; it’s not something that’s resolved in a matter of

weeks. We sounded good when we started, and we sound

better now."

Now beginning his third season with the quartet, Beaver

tries to pinpoint his input to the ensemble. "I would like

to think that I have contributed tonally," he says, "that

I’ve expanded the range of colors and dynamics (sonic

volume). The Quartet has a robust sound, but I was

concerned with the subtlety of shadings. Of course, they

were doing well earlier with this. Still, it’s something I

hold very dear. In any piece the dynamics given by the

composer are always relative. You have to be aware of

where it’s coming from, and where it’s going, of when the

piece was written, and the overall mood. I would like to

think that the Quartet gives each piece its own sound

world and puts the piece into perspective for the


Beaver is sensitive to the tension between continuity and

change in the Quartet. "There’s a balance between how much

you say ‘We’ve always played it this way,’ and how much

you say ‘Here’s a new idea on the table and let’s try

that.’" He welcomes the openness of the Tokyo’s veterans.

"The more senior members of the Quartet are willing to

reconsider a piece and try new ideas in terms of tempo,

dynamics, and overall interpretational concepts," he says.

"They haven’t stopped growing. They retain a freshness

that’s important for keeping the music-making alive."

Shifting alliances within the quartet constantly reshape

musical positions, Beaver reveals. "We have two new

members and two old ones," he says. "Clive and I are in

our late 30s. The others are in their 50s. We’re all

influenced by our own generations. But our alliances are

very fickle. Basically, we differ depending on the piece.

We’re all detail-oriented with a view to the bigger

picture. We all avoid dogma; otherwise we would give stale

performances. It’s important to question yourself. We’re

zealously democratic when it comes to rehearsing. We

younger members have a wealth of experience to draw on

from the older members. But we don’t feel we should be

quiet and do what they say."

Beaver is an unusually self-effacing first violinist,

especially when one considers his British background. By

English nomenclature, the first violinist is known as the

"Leader." I encourage him to talk about the role of the

first violinist as the person in charge. "In baroque and

early classical works the first violin has the lion’s

share of material of interest," he says. "But changes

already appear in late Haydn.

"People ask, ‘Do you conduct or lead?’" Beaver says. "I

give the cue, but we’re all breathing together. At one

point or other everybody takes the lead. Sometimes the

person with the tune is not leading, but is following the

rhythm section, as it were."

"Our roles vary," Beaver says. "We’re called on to be

sometimes soloist, and sometimes accompanist, but always

to be a collaborative performer. We need flexibility. The

ability to morph into something different is an important

aspect of playing in a quartet."

The messages about collaboration are often visible, Beaver

notes. "Often, after a concert people will remark how much

eye contact we have. The audience can almost see a laser

beam of connection. It surprises them. The visual lines of

communication are just as important as listening."

Tokyo String Quartet, Thursday, September 23,

8 p.m; Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton Universtiy

Campus. $35, $28, $20. 609-258-5000.

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