Having joined the Takacs Quartet in August, 2005, violist Geraldine Walther has put down roots in the ensemble. Almost. To be sure, in a telephone interview from her studio in Boulder, Colorado, she says that she has thought of herself as an established member of the quartet since they recorded Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” and “Rosamunde” Quartets in spring, 2006, roughly eight months after signing on. (Hyperion released the disc in October, 2006.) Indeed, she remembers saying to “the guys,” as she calls the other members of the group, “Now, I really feel that I’m Takacs Quartet.”
However, she readily declares, “I’m the rookie.” And most of the time she refers to the ensemble as “they,” not “we.” The much-admired Takacs Quartet plays Haydn, Bartok and Brahms in a concert at Richardson Auditorium, Thursday, February 15. Members of the ensemble, in addition to violist Walther, are Edward Dusinberre and Karoly Schranz, violins; and Andras Fejer, cello.
Schranz and Fejer were among the original members of the quartet, which was formed in 1975 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest. Their first American tour took place in 1982. They have been in residence at the University of Colorado in Boulder since 1983. The prize-winning ensemble has harvested enthusiastic reception in almost all of the world’s major music cities. The quartet is scheduled to appear in a three-concert series in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Auditorium during the 2007-’08 season.
During its 31 years of existence, the quartet has had three changes of personnel. Knowing at the start of the 2004-’05 season that they would have to replace violist Roger Tapping at the end of the period, the ensemble undertook a relatively leisurely search. “Ten or eleven of us auditioned,” says Walther, who was principal violist of the San Francisco Symphony at the time, and a devoted summer chamber music performer. Takacs’ manager lives in the Bay Area and knew me from concerts in San Francisco. She had heard me in ‘Music@Menlo,’ Wu Han and David Finckel’s summer music festival. She told Takacs they ought to try me.”
The Takacs scrutinized all the viola aspirants, Walther says, and narrowed down the contenders to three finalists. “Whoever played the best was going to win out. We played for an audience at the University of Colorado. The faculty came. They participated in the choice.”
Although some orchestral instrumentalists, being attentive followers, have difficulty with chamber music, where they play their part alone, Walther considers her own orchestral career excellent training for chamber music. “As first chair violist in a great orchestra, I played a lot of solos, made a lot of decisions, and got to play a concerto every year,” she says. “I had settled into the orchestral world and had a wonderful life playing with wonderful conductors and soloists. It was a musical education from the best of the best.
“I was pretty happy in the orchestra, but I had done it for almost 30 years. I was a bit restless, but I didn’t know what to do about it. Then this opportunity came up. I was thrilled to be able to change careers at this point in my life. I’m getting to play solo all the time in the quartet. I love the fact that I can play with these guys and travel the world with them.”
Three years older than violinist Schranz and cellist Fejer, Walther, 56, is the oldest member of the quartet and the only woman. Violinist Dusinberre is 18 years her junior. “I feel that I’m at the peak of my powers,” she says. “Takacs wanted an experienced player. I think they put the right things first. They didn’t hold against me that I’m a middle-aged woman. I think they are very smart. Years after women’s lib, women still have hurdles. But it’s not an issue with the quartet. I’m proud of me, and proud of them.”
Because of her background, Walther required minimal orientation as a new quartet member. “I come from a long background of chamber music,” she says. “They handed me a bunch of parts that were already marked. I know from all my years of orchestral playing and summer chamber music that playing with Takacs is just music. It’s the same, except different.
‘I take orders from the boys,” Walther says. “I love the way they play. I want to play that way too. I’m trying to get on the same page and go with it. How they play gets out the message that classical music can change the world, that it’s alive, vital, and an incredibly important activity. I’m not trying to give up my individuality. They don’t want that. It’s been a wild ride so far.”
Walther’s down-to-earth remarks in simple language are profound. It’s a tricky affair, assimilating a new member into an existing chamber ensemble. On one hand, the integrity of the group must be maintained. On the other hand, the new member has to be assertive enough not to disappear into the whole. Then, there is the mountain of gradually emerging indefinable elements: taste, style, personal chemistry, and unspoken communication.
Born in Tampa, Florida, in 1950, Walther is the daughter of an architectural draftsman and a housewife, both music lovers, and curious about musical instruments. Walther’s father built a plywood cello for her. “It really worked. But it sounded bad,” she says. Her younger brother, Lyle Lamboley, is a professional cellist.
Walther’s musical instruction started in elementary school. “I was playing violin on a nine-dollar-a-year rented instrument,” she says. “When I was 10, my mother saw a viola in a pawn shop and bought it.”
Immediately, Walther was captivated by the viola. “I thought it would be a little bit different to have my own music and my own voice. I soon learned that violists are in the middle. I like to know how things work from the middle. I always liked making harmony.”
Walther studied at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute with Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet and at the Manhattan School of Music with Lillian Fuchs. She served as assistant principal of the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Miami Philharmonic, and the Baltimore Symphony before moving to San Francisco.
Mother of two daughters, she says, “I was always playing, playing, playing. My husband was there for them.” Daughter Argenta, almost 24, a graduate of the University of California-Santa Cruz, is applying to graduate schools for vocal training. She sings in a Denver restaurant that offers arias from opera and operetta. Daughter Julia, 18, is a student at Minnesota’s Carleton College.
Husband Tom has written two child-oriented books. Amusingly illustrated, “A Spider Might” pursues provocative questions like what might a spider do when it takes off its skin. “Make Mine Music,” Walther says, “is about making instruments for kids out of whatever is lying around the house.”
Currently, her husband is working on a book about holistic management, an environment-enhancing approach to managing land resources founded by wildlife biologist Allan Savory. Tom plays guitar and mandolin. “He’s a really talented guy,” his wife says.
As the couple settles down in Longmont, Colorado, a Boulder suburb, Walther settles into the Takacs Quartet. She has learned that the ensemble is a local treasure. “The quartet belongs to the concert-going community in the town of Boulder. They treat us like a rock band, like something special, something appreciated,” she says, soudning almost like one of “the guys.”
Takacs String Quartet, Thursday, February 15, 8 p.m., Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Bartok, Haydn, and Brahms. $20 to $40. www.princeton.edu/utickets or 609-258-5000.