"I've been looking all these years for the ideal quartet," says violinist Peter Marsh. "And the longer I look, the more difficult the search."
On the subject of string quartets, Marsh speaks from the experience of more than three decades. With that authority, and after 23 years as leader of the Lenox Quartet, five years as first violinist of two other ensembles and today first violin of the Los Angeles-based Sequoia Quartet, he says that quartet-playing is not for everyone, whatever his interests and qualifications.
For the time being, however, Marsh says he is happy to be a part of the Sequoia ensemble, a group of ostensible stability through most of its 14-year history, but one which has been in transition during the past two seasons.
Building a quartet, whether from the ground up or from the foundation of an existing ensemble, is a very complicated business, says the veteran chamber-player.
The technical demands on the individuals are enormous and not forgiving of any musician who is less than virtuosic in accomplishment, he says.
And beyond that, Marsh says: "It's really tough finding that right combination of players who have strong qualities as musicians, yet who can get along with each other. It's a matter, first, of personality, of being an artist with an individual sense of perspective, then of interacting with others in a productive way.
"There are so many quartets who do well, who play with admirable style and ensemble--but who really have no face."
Beginning a new season this afternoon in Little Tokyo's Japan America Theatre, the Sequoia Quartet, comprising Marsh, two of its original members--violinist Miwako Watanabe and violist James Dunham--and cellist Bonnie Hampton (new to the ensemble as of this summer), still seeks its face.
All four players profess hope and faith that this combination of members will be successful and lasting. Each of the four admits that there are risks involved. But optimism is the prevailing mood of the newest incarnation of Sequoia.
Founded at CalArts in 1972 by four young musicians with connections to the Valencia school--Watanabe, Dunham, Yoko Matsuda and Joel Krosnick--the Sequoia Quartet in the intervening years has survived success and failure.
(Within two years, Robert Martin replaced cellist Krosnick--who left to pursue free-lance work and later joined the Juilliard Quartet, of which he is still a member.)
Among its successes, have been the quartet's Beethoven cycle, its Bartok cycle, a Naumburg Award--and subsequent East Coast debuts and engagements--an Australian tour and an expanding hometown series. The quartet's fortunes have been guided and supported by a number of professional managements and by the Sequoia String Quartet Foundation.
The group has had only one clear-cut failure, if one discounts the ensemble's current lack of an academic home base (the Sequoia has been a resident quartet at both CalArts and Cal State Long Beach in recent seasons).
That was the breakup of the marriage, five years ago, between first violinist Matsuda and violist Dunham. For most members of the quartet's public, that event seemed not to take place; as far as they could see and hear, it caused no disruption in the ensemble's schedule, no interruption in its performances, nor any apparent lowering of its musical standards.
Four years later, however, in the spring of 1985, the very survival of the quartet came into question.
At that time, Matsuda and Martin decided to leave, each citing a desire to pursue a number of other musical options.
Eighteen months ago, the impending departure of half its personnel was first seen by the other half, Dunham says, as a termination.
"In that moment, which didn't last very long, it seemed that their leaving had to mean the breakup of the quartet," he remembers. Immediately, however, both musicians considered another possibility.
"We thought again. In that second moment, which we shared with each other, Miwako and I decided the quartet meant too much to both of us to let it go. We decided to survive." Thus began a transition period which may not be over yet.
"It wasn't easy and it wasn't cheap," Dunham describes those months. "Looking for new members for an existing quartet, especially when you're looking for two new members, entails great expense and great agonizing."
During an extensive, five-month, transcontinental search, Watanabe and Dunham first found a first violinist and then the three members auditioned cellists. The two new members were first violinist Marsh--veteran of the late, lamented Lenox Quartet (1958-81), as well as, later, the Philadelphia and Berkshire Quartets--and young British cellist Marius May. They made their first appearances with the Sequoia in October, 1985.
Less than nine months later, May, with the blessings of his three partners, left California and returned to England to resume his solo career. May's leaving, his former colleagues insist, was amicable.