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This article was prepared for the September 22, 2004
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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,
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
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."
8 p.m; Richardson Auditorium on the Princeton Universtiy
Campus. $35, $28, $20. 609-258-5000.
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