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Ideas Take Stage With Guarneri String Quartet : Music: The cellist for the group says it's 'less concerned with mechanical things' and more interested in concepts.


In an age of quick turnover, the Guarneri String Quartet has remained intact for 30 years. The group now stakes its claim as the oldest active string quartet.

"We hardly imagined lasting this long," Guarneri cellist David Soyer said in a recent phone interview from his home in New York City.

"Still, here we are, trudging along. The secret? I don't know. One of the elements is respect for each other as musicians."

Another must be their fine playing, which has earned them numerous awards. Even so, they still rehearse diligently, although "not as much as we used to when we were in our early days. We know a hell of a lot more repertory. We're not learning Beethoven string quartets for the first time. We do most of it in the early fall, when we do repertory, and we rehearse on the road.

"We're less concerned with mechanical things--ensemble, bullet-like precision, things of that sort," he added. "Now we're more concerned with musical ideas, presenting an overall concept, then we were when younger.

The quartet--Soyer, violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley and violist Michael Tree--opens the Laguna Chamber Music series tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre with a program of Haydn, Bartok and Debussy.

"We try to offer a balanced program of works that we like and like to play," the cellist said. Of Debussy's G minor Quartet: "I don't know how many times we've played it. It still remains very fresh. That's one of the wonderful things about the repertory for string quartet."

He acknowledged that Bartok's Fourth Quartet, written in 1928, still presents tough going for a portion of their audience.

"Some people find it hard listening. Some find it interesting and exhilarating. It depends on their tolerance. Of course, it's old stuff by now. The Fourth has a lot of motor energy and a beautiful slow movement. It's quite an attractive piece."

As for Haydn, "What can one say of Haydn--he was a very good composer?" he said with a laugh.

The Guarneri plays about 75 concerts a year these days, having cut down from a peak of about 120 because "we also record and teach. It's a pretty busy existence."

Soyer enjoys teaching--the quartet is on the faculty at the University of Maryland--but he has modified his methods over the years.

"My teachers were very severe in the old-fashioned way, really severe, even to the point of being physical," he said. "When I first began to teach, that was the way I taught. Someone who did that told me his students used to cry a lot, but didn't learn a lot. (So) I no longer teach in that way. I probably am rather strict, but hopefully I'm kindly."


Soyer isn't so kind in his opinion of the value of musical competitions. They are not "a particularly good thing. Judges always seem to pick the same sort of players. The really original ones are not the ones who win the competitions. . . ."

There is emerging talent, however. "There are some very good young quartets we've heard and some we've taught," he said. He named the Orion and the Shanghai quartets, but was not making an exclusive list.

They also face more career hurdles than the Guarneri ever did. "It's a bit more difficult to make a career these days," he said. "The number of (presenters) is about the same, but the number of groups are more--many more--than when we first began."

Further, today's quartets must face "a trend in concert series of having mixed things, including jazz and rock and what have you," Soyer said. "I don't particularly like rock. Jazz I'm very fond of. It's not an unhealthy idea, (if) it is of good quality."

The ones who have succeeded in marketing themselves in this way, such as the Kronos Quartet, are a different kind of fish, he said. "Kronos is not a string quartet in our sense at all," he said. "They're a performing group that does, (pause) whatever they do. Others are like that now, too. They do have a following."

Even so, Soyer is not ready to ring down the curtain on the traditional string quartet. "I don't think music is in any kind of crisis," he said. "The audiences are turning grayer in certain areas, but then again we play a great deal of universities, and it's encouraging to see students at concerts. We recently played a concert in Taipei and the audience was huge, the hall was huge. They were almost all young."

* The Guarneri String Quartet will play Haydn's String Quartet in G, Opus 77, No. 1; Bartok's Quartet No. 4 and Debussy's Quartet in G minor tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine. 8 p.m. $14 to $25. The program is jointly sponsored by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Orange County Philharmonic Society. (714) 854-4646

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