Unity of style and identity

Peter Alexander | Boulder Weekly

It seems that every month brings a new article announcing the demise of classical music.

The evidence has been the same for several years now.

Record sales are down. Audiences are getting older. Orchestras are cutting budgets.

But if classical music is dying, somebody forgot to tell the Takács Quartet and its audience.

Quartet-in-residence at the CU College of Music since 1983, the Takács Quartet has been selling out its concerts in CU’s 500-seat Grusin Hall almost from its arrival in Boulder: first one performance each of six programs every year, then a second performance of selected programs, and finally two performances — Sunday-Monday pairs — of each program they present.

That’s 1,000 tickets, five times a year, for a string quartet. It’s a record few chamber ensembles can match.

Four students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, Hungary, founded the quartet in 1975. With players trained in the same Hungarian string-playing tradition and sharing a common culture, the quartet immediately had a unity of style and a highly individual identity. That identity, based in an intensity of expression, a willingness to take risks and a sense of humor in performance, quickly propelled the Takács Quartet to the front ranks of chamber groups around the world.

Since then, two of the original members have retired, and today the quartet features first violinist Edward Dusinberre from Leamington Spa, England; second violinist Károly Schranz, one of the original members; violist Geraldine Walther, a Florida native; and cellist András Fejér, the other remaining founding member.

Transitions in string quartets are notoriously tricky. The career stakes are high for all the players, and for the new members, stepping into an established group can be intimidating.

“It was daunting for me, absolutely,” Dusinberre admits. “It was a challenging time, but it was also a huge adventure for me. I think in a way it was more stressful for [the other members of the quartet] because they had been doing it for 18 years and there was a lot at stake for them. For me it was a wonderful opportunity.”

To all evidence, the quartet’s high standard of quality has survived. Recently the critic of the London Guardian wrote, “This is chamber-music playing of overwhelming intensity, insight and intelligence, simply the best I have ever heard in concert.”

And the Ann Arbor News commented, “The group’s playing is so alive, so rich and in the moment, it makes you listen with every fiber.”

The quartet’s repertoire for the remainder of the Boulder season is extraordinarily varied. It includes staples by Haydn, Schubert and Bartók; less familiar works by Smetana, Respighi and Chausson; and a brand new work written for the Takács Quartet by American composer Daniel Kellog.

For the next concert pair (Sunday at 4 p.m. and Monday at 7:30 p.m.), the group will play two quartets by Haydn for the first half of the program, although not the same quartets both nights. The Sunday afternoon concert features Op. 74 No. 1 in C major and Op. 71 No. 2 in D major; on Monday it will be Op. 71 No. 1 in B-flat major, paired again with Op. 71 No. 2. For both programs, the second half of the concert will be Bedrich Smetana’s Quartet in E minor, “From My Life.”

Although Haydn and Smetana come from very different musical worlds, both composers address one of the basic issues of chamber music: music written for private performance as opposed to music written for an audience. Because chamber music is played by a single player on each part, it resembles a private conversation among the players. But today most chamber music is played before an audience that seemingly eavesdrops on the players. Thus the music is simultaneously public and private.

“That theme of public and private is one of the most interesting things about chamber music,” Dusinberre says. “It’s something we talk about a lot in the quartet.”

In Haydn’s time, chamber music was a private experience. But Haydn changed that with the quartets from Opp. 71 and 74: These works were written for the composer’s second visit to London, where they were to be played as part of the composer’s highly successful concert series. They are the first string quartets written expressly for concert performance.

“He is thinking of the larger space,” Dusinberre says. “The way each of those pieces starts with some sort of a fanfare or a chord [is] kind of just grabbing the audience’s attention to say ‘Shut up! We’re about to start playing!’ It’s hard to replicate that because audiences are well behaved nowadays. You’d almost need to come out and play the chords before they sat down to create that effect.

“But on the other hand, although they’re for a public space, still as an audience you feel like you are eavesdropping on private conversations; there’s still a lot of witty, intimate dialogue.”

Written some 80 years later, Smetana’s quartet moves in the opposite direction. By the 1870s, chamber music was a well-established concert genre. But with his Quartet in E minor, Smetana takes the listener into the very private world of his personal life and the tragedy of his growing deafness. This is most evident in the final movement, where the music suddenly breaks off and the first violinist sounds high E, representing the ringing in his ears that preceded the composer’s deafness.

This public expression of private experience, Dusinberre says, is a “feature of the time period and Romantic angst in the sense of need for self expression. When we’re playing the piece it just feels like baring your soul in a very public way.”

Melodramatic as it may seem, “in the context of the drama it works very well,” Dusinberre says. “The rest of that movement is like a big village party, and it’s a typical device in movies or literature to have a very public scene with a lot of dancing and festivity, and then at the end … you see that the public [scene] has just been a context for the more dramatic, painful, private one.”

Thus both composers are working out the public private dynamic in a highly personal way. And when the Takács Quartet presents their music next Sunday and Monday, you can still be part of the public audience who listens in.

And the good news is that “sold out” doesn’t mean you can’t get into their remaining concerts this season ( Jan. 9-10, Feb. 13-14 and April 17-18; see the programs at http://bit.ly/eNckeS). In fact, CU box office Manager Nick Vocatura says, “I’ve never had to turn anybody away.” As Vocatura explains, there are three ways to get one of the hottest classical tickets in Boulder: You can call the box office (303-492-8008) and get on the waiting list for returned tickets, come to Grusin Hall before a concert and get on the wait list for last-minute turnbacks, or purchase stage seating, for which a limited number of tickets remain.

(These can be purchased from the box office at any time.)

On the Bill

Takács Quartet plays
Grusin Hall on Sunday, Jan. 9, and Monday, Jan. 10. Sunday show starts
at 4 p.m.; Monday show starts at 7:30 p.m. Single tickets are $35. Imig
Music Building, Euclid Avenue and 13th Street, CU campus, 303-492-8008.