Three string quartets and a piano trio provide evenings of intimate music in the 2009 lineup for the summer chamber music concerts at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium. The venerable series, founded in 1968, opens this year with the Trio Con Brio Copenhagen on Thursday, June 18. The Cypress String Quartet plays Thursday, June 25; the St. Petersburg String Quartet, Monday, July 13; and the Afiara String Quartet, Monday, July 20.

Classics of chamber music ranging from Franz Joseph Haydn to 20th century Russians, via Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Beethoven, have been programmed, with two outliers, both on the Afiara program. The two unusual pieces are Giacomo Puccini’s Crisantemi, a little-heard elegy for string quartet; and John Zorn’s “Cat O’ Nine Tails,” the 1988 commission that initiated the 1953-born avant-garde composer/saxophonist into writing for classical musicians.

All performances take place in Richardson Auditorium at 8 p.m. Tickets are free and may be picked up at the Richardson box office beginning at 6:30 p.m. the evening of the performance.

Two members of the St. Petersburg Quartet were available for a telephone interview from San Diego, California, where they were performing in the “Mainly Mozart” Festival. First violinist Alla Aranovskaya has been a member of the quartet since its founding in 1985. Violist Boris Vayner, the newest member of the ensemble, joined in January, 2005. Aranovskaya, at 50, is the oldest member; Vayner, at 32, is the youngest. “The two of us are really the managers,” says Aranovskaya.

The other members of the ensemble are violinist Alla Krolevich, 44; and cellist Leonid Shukayev, 48. The quartet expands to a quintet for the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with clarinetist Teddy Abrams. Originally from San Francisco, Abrams has built a reputation as both clarinetist and pianist.

Aranovskaya is probably the chief decision maker in the ensemble. “We argue about the music a lot,” she says. “I’m usually more convincing than the others. We’re always looking at the form. What we want is freedom within the form. We don’t want anarchy.”

In 1985, the year Gorbachev came to power, violinist Aranovskaya, along with violinist Krolevich and cellist Shukayev founded the St. Petersburg Quartet in order to compete in the All-Soviet Union String Quartet Competition. Graduates of the Leningrad Conservatory, they named the ensemble the Leningrad String Quartet. With the fall of Communism in 1991, when Leningrad resumed its traditional name, the quartet also changed its name out of loyalty to the traditions of the city.

Vayner is the fourth violist to play in the ensemble since its founding. Krolevich, the original second violinist, left the quartet in 1988 and rejoined the group in October 2005, 10 months after Vayner arrived.

To fill the viola slot that went to Vayner, the quartet considered three candidates. “We invited them to spend three days with us,” Aranovskaya says. “Each was assigned the same program. It included the Ravel Quartet. The Ravel has a very important third movement part for viola, where you can immediately realize who’s playing with you. We also asked the three to play Mozart in order to see how they handled the style. In half a year we could see that we were a real group with Boris. It was very comfortable.”

Vayner speaks from the candidate’s point of view. “When you’re invited by a group that you respect, you don’t consider whether you want them. You think: ‘Do they want you?’ Being invited to audition by the St. Petersburg Quartet was a great opportunity for me.”

A former member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Vayner contrasts quartet playing with orchestral playing. “For a violist it’s most exciting to be in a quartet, rather than in an orchestra,” he says. “In a quartet you have to constantly switch from soloist to supporting roles. In fact, being in a quartet is like always being a soloist. In an orchestra, you have no solos if you’re not the principal; you don’t have to care about your sound or your vibrato. In an orchestra, an individual doesn’t make a difference; if you play better than anyone else, no one will hear you.

“A chamber group takes time to develop,” Vayner continues. “A new quartet needs a couple of years to blend. You have to make one sound. You will not receive financial success right away. You have to put in a lot of work first.”

Indeed, Krolevich’s re-entry to the St. Petersburg Quartet after a 15-year absence required additional work. During that period she had played in the Israeli Symphony Orchestra and other Israeli orchestras as well as participating in chamber music projects. “It was hard for her to adjust to the quartet again,” says Aranovskaya. “With only two of us being old-timers, it was a hard time for the quartet. We rehearsed every day for four hours. We just kept on working.”

When I observe that four hours a day is a lot of practicing, Aranovskaya says, “Actually, when we started the quartet and were preparing the program for the All-Union competition, we practiced 17 hours a day.”

The three founding members of the quartet personally experienced the shift from hard-line Communism to the softening that began with Gorbachev and Perestroika in 1986. “Before Perestroika it was a hard time for musicians,” she says. “There was almost no possibility to travel abroad. As a quartet you had to get permission from the government.”

Because of the long-term competition between Moscow and St. Petersburg (Leningrad) in Soviet times, St. Petersburg was at a disadvantage. “Moscow had more power, and always tried to show musicians from Moscow, and hide musicians from St. Petersburg,” Aranovskaya says. “Our quartet wanted to compete in Japan after Perestroika, but the government refused to support us. We would be permitted to go if we could find our own money. We raised the money.

“When we got on the plane we discovered that there was a quartet from Moscow, also headed for Japan. The Moscow Quartet was supported by the government. We knew them. It was the quartet with whom we shared first prize in the all Soviet-Union String Quartet competition. So the Soviet Union had two separate groups in Japan, one of them supported by the government. We won second prize; they failed after the first round. We also got a special prize from Lufthansa.” It was another victory for St. Petersburg.

The St. Petersburg quartet came to the United States for the first time in 1989, invited to participate in the Musicorda festival at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Founded in 1987 by Amherst professor Leopold Teraspulsky and his wife, the festival closed in 2005. When Teraspulsky died in 2008, the obituary in the Springfield (MA) Republican cited bringing the St. Petersburg Quartet to Massachusetts as one of his achievements.

“We participated as quartet, performers, and teachers,” Aranovskaya says. “We were invited each year. The program was popular for 17 years. It developed groupies. We sometimes saw them in Seattle.” Aranovskaya’s warm feelings for the festival are palpable over the telephone.

In 1997 the St. Petersburg Quartet was invited to the Oberlin Conservatory as Quartet in Residence. The residency ended in 2003 when funding dried up. The members of the quartet continue to live in Oberlin, Ohio. All are married; among them they have eight children. They return to St. Petersburg about once a year. Aranovskaya told WGBH radio host Richard Knisely, “Life is tough now in Russia. There’s more freedom, but less funding.”

Musically, the Russian past stays with the St. Petersburg Quartet. “We’re Russians,” Aranovskaya says. “We worry about playing in a Russian style, which is not quite European. If we play identically with the Alban Berg Quartet, nobody will call them Russian because they’re from Germany.” She wards off the problem of sounding overly Russian by paying attention to the recordings of others, in tandem with the St. Petersburg Quartet’s violist, Vayner. “Boris and I listen to lots of recordings,” she says, “looking for style in pieces.”

Transplanted to the United States, the St. Petersburg Quartet has shaped an American identity. The ensemble has built a repertoire of more than 120 pieces, and a discography of more than a dozen items. Among their CDs is the six-disc boxed set of the complete Shostakovich String Quartets on the Hyperion label.

In addition, the quartet releases its own otherwise unpublished recordings through its website www.stpetersburgquartet.com. Called “Create your own CD,” the arrangement permits potential buyers to select their own tracks. “What’s unique,” says Aranovskaya, “is that the choices come from unpublished live concerts. If we’re satisfied with the quality of a live recording, we make it available. It’s kind of old-style. It’s not just downloading. We sign the CD.”

Entrepreneurs, the St. Petersburg Quartet this summer inaugurates a successor to its beloved Musicorda Festival. Devoted to string playing and conducting, the St. Petersburg International Music Academy takes place at Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin. Participants are offered individual lessons, coaching in chamber music or conducting, and opportunities to perform with orchestra. Information is available at www.stpetersburgacademy.com. The academy runs from June 28 to July 11. Two days after it ends the quartet performs in Princeton.

Trio Con Brio Copenhagen, Princeton University Summer Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Thursday, June 18, 8 p.m. Free tickets available at the box office at 6:30 p.m. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. 609-470-8404 or www.pusummerchamberconcerts.org.

Also, Cypress String Quartet, Thursday, June 25, 8 p.m.; St. Petersburg Quartet, Monday, July 13, 8 p.m.; and Afiara String Quartet, Monday, July 20, 8 p.m.

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