Princeton University Concerts opens its 2014-’15 season by displaying the transformation of death into art. Actress Meryl Streep joins the Takacs String Quartet in a program that includes readings from Philip Roth’s 2006 novel “Everyman,” as well as Franz Schubert’s dramatic “Death and the Maiden” quartet.
The performance takes place in Richardson Auditorium of Alexander Hall on Friday, September 19, at 7:30 p.m.
The concert — a unique event to be presented only in Princeton — is the brainchild of Takacs first violinist Edward Dusinberre, a Roth fan. Other quartet members are Karoly Schranz, second violin; Geraldine Walther, viola; and Andras Fejer, cello. The quartet takes its name from its original first violinist, Gabor Takacs-Nagy.
Interviewed by telephone in his Boulder, Colorado, home, Dusinberre imagines himself as an audience member. “Putting the program together was a matter of selfish curiosity on my part. I wanted to hear the meditation on death in the Roth novel, and I wanted to hear the greatest meditation on death that we are exposed to as chamber musicians,” he says.
Dusinberre fills in the details of the concert’s development: “I read Philip Roth’s novel ‘Everyman’ shortly after it was published. The book is a comprehensive compilation of reactions to death — fear, terror, and coming to terms. It’s a strong theme. To me, the novel seemed musical in a specific way. It has a sense of evolution, like a musical theme and variations. It opens with a scene in a cemetery and goes back to that cemetery on two other occasions in the book. Immediately, the second movement of Schubert’s ‘Death and the Maiden’ came to mind.” The Schubert string quartet deals with death luring a terrified maiden.
“There’s another connection,” Dusinberre says. “The song captures the terrified reaction of the maiden. In the Roth book, just before the main character goes into surgery he has a memory of himself as a boy swimming in the Atlantic. They’re both great images of youth about to face death.”
Dusinberre points out one more parallel between the Schubert and the Roth. “Schubert knew that he was sick when he wrote the ‘Death and the Maiden’ quartet. In ‘Everyman’ the hero learns that a colleague is struggling to write his memoir; when the memoir writer learns he has cancer, his writer’s block goes away,” he says.
The Princeton concert is a second version of a 2007 Roth/Schubert performance at Carnegie Hall with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Dusinberre remembers the gestation of that initial performance. “The Schubert is a complete work of art,” he says, “and at first I could not see how to splice it with the Roth.”
Roth himself, a Takacs fan, solved the problem inadvertently. “Roth had been coming to Takacs concerts in New York,” Dusinberre says. “I met him backstage after we performed. It gave me the courage to ask how he would feel about our chopping up his book for a concert. I had a rather crude idea about how to do this. Roth knew how to choose extracts so they would work in a unified way. He’s been wonderful to work with.”
Dusinberre thought of pairing contemporary meditational music with the novel. The earlier version of the program included music by a variety of composers, including a work for string quartet by the Estonian composer Arvo Part — a contemporary who carefully employs formal structures to create revelatory or spiritual music. “The Princeton performance is a tweaked version, with the non-Part items in the original performance eliminated,” Dusinberre says.
Roth suggested Streep when the idea of the Princeton performance was devised, and quartet manager Seldy Cramer contacted her. “The reading of his material is very important,” Dusinberre says. “Roth has made some changes in the text with Streep in mind.”
Dusinberre talks about tussling with details of the Roth/Part component of the Princeton concert. “I thought about the shape of the program,” he says. “For instance: How long should the first musical example last? There are four readings and four pieces of music; we start with music and alternate with reading. Then there’s the intermission. The Schubert comes after intermission. The concert has two distinct halves. The first half is the more experimental half.”
On the surface, geography seems at odds with rehearsing the Princeton program, since the Takacs’ home is in Colorado and Streep lives in California. But Dusinberre has a plan. “The timing of transitions is the most difficult part,” he says. “That’s what we’ll rehearse. We are working very hard on the music; Streep is working with Roth on the readings. We’ll meet and put it together the day of the concert. There are possibilities of changing the music in the first part of the concert.”
In Princeton, both Roth and Streep confront their New Jersey roots. Roth was born and grew up in Newark. Streep was born in Summit and grew up in Bernardsville.
Born in 1933, Roth attended Bucknell University and did graduate work at the University of Chicago. One of the most-awarded writers of his generation, he tends toward the autobiographical in his fiction, which is regularly set in Newark. He taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and at Princeton University.
Streep, born in 1949, graduated from Vassar College before attending the Yale School of Drama. She performed in New York theater productions after earning her master’s degree at Yale.
Winner of a barrelful of honors, she has been nominated for Academy Awards 18 times, more than any other actor. New York Magazine described her as a chameleon, willing to play a diversity of roles.
Streep has said that if she were not an actress, she would have liked to be a musician. During her career she has had substantial brushes with musical performance. In “Music of the Heart” she portrayed a New Yorker teaching violin to inner-city children. In order to perform on the violin she trained intensively for two months. Streep also appeared in the film version of the musical “Mamma Mia.”
The Takacs quartet assembled itself in 1975 at the Music Academy in Budapest, Hungary. Two of the original members, second violinist Karoly Schranz and cellist Andras Fejer, remain in the quartet.
The ensemble toured North America for the first time in 1982. In 1983 the Takacs decided to move to the United States. Invited to be the quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado in Boulder, they have remained in Boulder.
“Boulder has been a wonderful base for us,” Dusinberre says. “We have grown into the community. We have our own concert series and a loyal, passionate audience. We do our serious rehearsing here. We perform with other Boulder musicians.”
The Takacs is intensely involved with students. “We mentor and nurture young chamber quartets in Boulder,” Dusinberre says. Boulder, he explains, is host to graduate student musical ensembles, which come for two-year residencies. “It gives people serious about quartets a chance to focus under a protected umbrella. It’s the equivalent of a post-doctoral program, a pre-professional launching pad.” Tongue-in-cheek he adds, “They get thoroughly brainwashed by the Takacs Quartet.”
The Takacs Quartet gives public master classes in Boulder. The student participants gain exposure to audiences and benefit from private coaching by the Takacs. “The entire quartet participates in the master classes,” Dusinberre says. Apart from the public events, individual Takacs members coach the ensembles privately about details for which there is not time in the master classes.
A master class is an unusual undertaking, Dusinberre believes. On the surface simply a public music lesson, the successful master class must simultaneously engage the attention of the audience. Skilled teachers of master classes must offer significant insights to the participating students without swamping listeners with a sea of minute details. “When teaching a public class, you must keep it entertaining for the audience,” Dusinberre says. “People do it differently. Still, the primary thinking has to be about educational aspects.”
Born in Leamington Spa, England, in 1968, Dusinberre was concertmaster of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain as a youngster. He studied with Felix Andrievsky at the Royal College of Music in London and with Dorothy DeLay and Piotr Milewski at New York’s Juilliard School. He has written articles about the Takacs and about Beethoven for the Guardian, the Financial Times, and Strad magazine.
The upcoming concert — a musical, literary, and dramatic event — has been the source of discussion within the community, stimulated by programs coordinated by the Princeton Adult School — most notably a Skype discussion between Roth, Dusinberre, and Princeton University English professor Michael Wood on “Everyman” and death. And then there is Roth’s posted communication with concert organizers where the writer personally reflects on death and music and says, “The immediacy of the pleasure of the music, its existence as a wholly other reality apart from the world of words, the way it fulfills some unknown need — well, I will miss it sorely when I’m gone.”
Takacs Quartet with Meryl Streep, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University. Friday, September 19, 7:30 p.m. Sold out. If tickets become available, they will be sold at Richardson Auditorium starting at 5:30 p.m. on September 19. For more information, call Frist Campus Center Box Office at 609-258-9220.