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This article by Elaine Struass was prepared for the October 13, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Takacs at 29: Magical Mix of Musical Strings

When U.S. 1 talked to Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács String Quartet, in 1994, he predicted that Ludwig van Beethoven would become his favorite composer. He was right. Beethoven has replaced Brahms in his pantheon. In a telephone interview from his home in Boulder, Colorado, he now emphatically gives Beethoven primacy.

Beethoven has a high profile in the Quartet’s activities at the moment. The Takács has played the cycle of 16 quartets in Cleveland, London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Sydney. New York’s Lincoln Center hosts the cycle in six concerts in January. Decca released a Grammy-winning two-CD set of the middle quartets in 2003 and a two-CD set of the early quartets in January, 2004. The final set, the late quartets, is expected to become available at about the time of the Lincoln Center concerts.

Beethoven’s massively varied seven-movement Quartet, Op. 131, is among the offerings of the Takacs’s appearance in Richardson Auditorium, Thursday, October 14. The program includes Franz Josef Haydn’s Quartet in C Major, Op. 76, No. 3; and Alexander Borodin’s Quartet No. 2 in D major. Both the Haydn and Borodin works are available on the Decca label.

Members of the Takács Quartet are Dusinberre; Károly Schranz, violin; Roger Tapping, viola; and András Fejér, cello. The Quartet has been in residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder, since 1983. During the last year, they extended the scope of their Boulder coaching to include teaching individual students. Dusinberre is both enthusiastic and humble about the increased student contact. "We’re more involved with the student community, and closer to other faculty since we share students with them. The faculty is very good, and very experienced at teaching individual students. We’re new at it."

Entering its 30th season, the quartet has had few personnel changes. Schranz and Fejer were among the four who founded the ensemble at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest in 1975. Dusinberre joined in 1993; and Tapping in 1995.

Violist Tapping leaves the quartet at the end of this season and the quartet expects to choose his successor early in 2005. "It’s sad that Roger is leaving," says Dusinberre. However, he explains that Tapping’s planned relocation to Boston makes sense because of his family situation. His wife is Natasha Brofsky, who, as cellist in the Peabody Trio, is frequently on the road. The couple has two young children.

Dusinberre’s family situation is likely to stay stable in Boulder. His wife, an archeologist, teaches at the University of Colorado. Their son Sam, 4, has no travel plans.

Born in 1968, Dusinberre grew up in England, the son of two academics: a historian father, and a Shakespearean scholar mother. Dusinberre’s American-born father brought the family to Cambridge, Massachusetts for a year when Edward was four, "I attended an American play group," he says, sounding thoroughly British.

A graduate of London’s Royal College of Music, Dusinberre came to New York’s Juilliard School in 1990. A student of Dorothy DeLay, he devoted himself primarily to piano trios and the solo violin literature. DeLay played matchmaker when the quartet sought a replacement for their first violinist, Gabor Takács-Nagy, who left the quartet in 1992, and whose name (pronounced TAH-kahsh) the ensemble decided to keep. Dusinberre was one of a short list of eight candidates invited to Boulder to play, talk, and share meals with the remaining members of the ensemble, setting a pattern for subsequent personnel changes. Three finalists from the group played in concerts that were recorded and analyzed. "In the end, Ed was an easy choice," cellist Andras Fejer told Michael Church of BBC Magazine.

New Takács performers have benefited from their predecessors in every case. Violinist Takács-Nagy left his fingerings and bowings for Dusinberre to use. Violist Tapping will do the same for his successor.

As successor to violist Gabor Ormai, Tapping’s induction into the quartet was poignant. Dying of cancer, Ormai helped orient Tapping. "Gabor was very welcoming, and came to the concert at which I played," Tapping told BBC Magazine. "It was very moving to feel I had his blessing. He even gave me some tricks of the trade."

When Dusinberre joined the quartet at age 24 he was younger than the other members by about 15 years, yet they made him feel comfortable about his role as a leader. "They never pulled their age on me," Dusinberre says. "They never made me feel young and inexperienced. When I joined, the others were very straightforward about what they wanted. They wanted a first violinist to share rehearsals and to give rehearsals a certain structure. They were supportive and open. The quartet has a sense of adventure and flexibility. It’s part of their character. Now that I’ve been a member for 11 years, I think of the quartet as my extended family."

Eight years younger than violist Tapping, Dusinberre remains the youngest member of the quartet. "I’m the youngest member, but I’m the leader," he frankly states. "When I have the melody, which happens a lot of the time," he says, "I simply lead."

Still, Dusinberre is no autocrat. He stands by what he told U.S. 1 a decade ago about his initial participation in the quartet. "At the first rehearsal I was struck by the different opinions of the members of the group and by their flexibility. If there are several opinions about how to play a piece, we play it differently on different nights. There’s no need for consensus on every single thing. Things often happen in concerts that are not thrashed out before. That appeals to me."

Now he expands on the matter, underlining the comfortable relations in the ensemble, and resisting the idea that all members must share a particular vision to create an effective performance. "We’ve all had the experience of feeling very strongly that something should be played a certain way," he says, "and have then re-thought the matter. For a strong performance all four performers on stage must be living the idea at that moment. If the environment is good, persuasion is not necessary. We know if we try other people’s ideas, they will try ours."

With a certain amount of wonder, Dusinberre muses about the elusive matter of maintaining the identity of the quartet despite personnel changes. "It’s a bizarre, magical thing," he says. "There’s a spirit in the quartet. It has something to do with risk-taking on stage and being very attuned to what each other is doing on stage. We try to play with a sense of warmth and a sense of humor. We like to make a big rich sound. If it means that something is less defined, so be it. We like a big wash of sound. That’s why we like Princeton. The quartet becomes an entity. When I’m on stage, I feel I’m putting my share into the pot, and that the whole thing goes out to the audience."

With a lineup of two Britons and two Hungarians in the quartet, Dusinberre tackles the question of whether there is a sense in which the ensemble is Hungarian. "We’re not aware of national identity at this point," he says. "Our approach to music is one of warmth and sincerity, especially in Bartok, which can sound abstract and dry." Performance of the six string quartets by Hungarian Bela Bartok is one of the strong points of the Quartet. "We’re instinctive. We talk about things, but we don’t spend hours analyzing. We listen and react.

"Our approach has to do with individual personalities," Dusinberre says. "Roger and I had experiences that made us very sympathetic to the Hungarians in the quartet. You can’t rule out the influence of background and experience. But it’s not black and white. As four human beings the reason we play chamber music is because we enjoy the interaction and the sense of teamwork. An ensemble takes maintenance, like any relationship.We value that."

The programming of the Takács Quartet shows a willingness to experiment and ignore conventional boundaries. In the 2001-’02 season they toured with U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky, presenting programs in which the theme of love inspired both literary creation and related musical compositions.

They have forged a collaboration with the Hungarian folk ensemble Muzsikas in which traditional melodies that form the basis of art music are interspersed with compositions by Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly. First presented in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall during its inaugural season in 2003-’04, the combined programs will tour Europe in the 2005-’06 season.

A sunny sense of adventure enabled the Takács to turn what might have been a demoralizing financial difficulty into a chain of successes. Eager to record the Beethoven Quartet cycle, they were unable to persuade DeccaLondon, with whom they have had an exclusive recording contract since 1988, to finance the recording fully. "This is a challenging time for big record labels," Dusinberre says. "Our recording company was supportive, but they would only pay for 1/3 of the project. It turned out to be a great advantage. We ended up with more artistic control over our recording sessions. We chose the place, the schedule, and the recording engineer. We gave ourselves five days for each session, which is very generous." The Quartet chose to record in St George’s Church in Bristol, England, and completed the sessions in July, a timing that makes possible the release of the final CD set near the six January concerts when the Takács performs the Beethoven cycle in Lincoln Center.

The quartet used the financial squeeze to mobilize a swathe of public support. "We discovered many people to help fund the project," Dusinberre says. "There was a particular group of friends and supporters in Washington, D.C., and we gave concerts for them in a private house. There were some generous supporters in Colorado. We wanted to make the contributors feel part of the project. We prepared a newsletter to keep them involved. It told about our challenges, our problems, and what we enjoyed. We thought we needed a special relationship with them." Violist Tapping wrote the newsletter.

Time has proved Dusinberre’s prescience in estimating his future judgment about Beethoven. But there was no way of guessing in advance how he would react to future financial distress. It couldn’t matter less. The spirit of the Takács is ample for solving both musical and non-musical problems.

Takacs String Quartet, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University; Thursday, October 14, 8 p.m. Tickets: $20 to $35. Call 609-258-2800.

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