Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Explorations in Music, KALW, The Alexander String Quartet & Relationships

Alexander String Quartet and Robert GreenbergThe old line goes that being a member of a professional string quartet is like being married to three people, except there’s no sex and nobody cooks.

The lack of food and sex notwithstanding, professional quartet membership IS a marriage. The members of a quartet live for and with each other; they depend on each other; they spend countless hours with each other through sickness and in health and along the way survive the ups and downs inherent in any long-term relationship. They rehearse together and, in doing so, they constantly compromise in order to create a musical whole greater than the sum of their individual parts; they travel together (when a string quartet travels, it must book FIVE airline seats: one for each of the players and one for the ‘cello); nightly, they experience together the stress and trial and potential disaster (and occasional glory) of public concertizing. If the musical and personal chemistry between its four members are not right, a string quartet – no matter how good the players are, individually – cannot succeed or survive.

The magnificent Alexander String Quartet was founded in New York in 1981. After 33 years, the ASQ is still going strong, a testament to the artistry of its members and their ability to get along with each other.

Now, like any long-term relationship, the relationship between the members of a string quartet is constantly evolving, which means occasional changes in personnel. In this, the ASQ has been incredibly stable: the violist Paul Yarborough and the ‘cellist Sandy Wilson (for whom the group is named; “Sandy” is the diminutive of his given first name, “Alexander”) are founding members. Fred Lifsitz, the second violinist, joined in 1987 and first violinist Zakarias Grafilo signed on in 2002.

With all due respect to its former members, the present manifestation of the ASQ is, by every measure, its best manifestation.

I should know. I’ve known the group since 1986 when, as a member of Composers, Inc., we brought the quartet out to San Francisco to perform on our new music series. I loved what I heard. Within a nonce (or two), the ASQ asked me to write a quartet for them, which I did: my second string quartet, a piece entitled “Child’s Play”. The ASQ schlepped back to San Francisco to premiere “Child’s Play” in November of 1988 (on election night; George Herbert Walker Bush, for those who care to remember), and subsequently played the piece all over the world and recorded it.

(A point of pride. It was thanks to Composers, Inc. that the ASQ got to know and love the San Francisco Bay Area. In 1989 the quartet relocated to San Francisco from New York and has been here ever since.)

Thus began the single longest and most artistically rewarding relationship of my career. My third string quartet, “Among Friends” (1995) was composed for the ASQ on a commission from the Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress; my fourth string quartet, “Snappy Rejoinder” (2005) was composed for the ASQ on a commission from San Francisco Performances; my fifth string quartet, “It’s Snowing” (2011) was composed for the ASQ as was my piano quintet “Invasive Species” (2012).

Of equal import are the narrated concerts the ASQ and I started doing in 1992. From its modest beginning in a large conference room overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco’s Fort Mason, our series now packs in the audience wherever we go. Aside from our regular performances in San Francisco, Berkeley and Davis, California, we have done shows at the Library of Congress in D.C.; in Scottsdale, AZ; and at the grievously named Merkin Hall in New York City (am I the only person who knows what a “merkin” is?).

Our San Francisco series is also recorded and broadcast on radio, and that is – finally! – what this post is meant to be about. The broadcasts are produced and aired by KALW (91.7 FM), an NPR affiliate here in the Bay Area under the title of “Explorations in Music”. A series recorded last winter/spring – the first of two seasons on the late chamber music of Mozart – will be broadcast on eight consecutive Monday evenings at 9 PM, starting this Monday, October 6. In preparation for the broadcasts, I was briefly interviewed by the host of the program David Latulippe. To read the interview and see a schedule of the broadcasts, visit the Alexander String Quartet’s blog.