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Intimate Affair

Rossetti String Quartet Has Found Its Voice After Relocating From New York 2 Years Ago to Play 'Love Letters' From Composers Music


Like so much of American culture, the classical music world is always looking for the next hot young talent. But being a comparatively young group--only 4 years old--hasn't helped the Rossetti String Quartet very much.

"Presenters will say, 'I'm not interested in any quartet that has not been in existence for 15 years,' " violist Thomas Diener said in a recent phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.

"That's their benchmark. Our management will say, 'But these people have had varying, distinguished careers. You really have to see them perform.' 'Nope. Fifteen years, that's my cutoff.'

"What's interesting is that one of those '15-year' people came to one of our performances and then engaged us for the next season," Diener said.

The quartet, which will play works by Beethoven, Ravel, Kodaly and Piazzolla in Founders Hall on Thursday, was formed in New York by Diener and violinist Henry Gronnier. The other two original members soon departed because they wanted children and a normal family life.

"I always say, 'You have to be born with the quartet gene,' " Diener said. "Unless you are sort of dedicated to the life of a string quartet, it can be a little bit difficult."

So Diener and Gronnier looked for replacements. They found them in violinist Nina Bodnar and cellist Eric Gaenslen.

There was one problem: Bodnar lived in Santa Barbara and Gaenslen lived in Los Angeles.

For a while, they tried being a bicoastal group.

"We would spend a month in L.A. and several weeks in New York, going back and forth," Diener said. "That was proving to be difficult. So we decided the best thing for the quartet would be to relocate to the West Coast. We moved here two years ago this month.

"Just living in New York is enough of a hassle. Add to that time and energy to put into rehearsing and formulating ideas as a group, and it's a little disconcerting. Life in California is very conducive to the creative process of a string quartet."

The group named itself after Pre-Raphaelite painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who "burst through very staid ideas about art," Diener said.

"He said, 'Hey, look, there's no reason we have to do all this sort of Italian copying, making everything look darker, using chiaroscuro, making all the perspective look as if it had been done at the time of Raphael.'

"What happened as a result of that was that the Pre-Raphaelites pushed art into a new era. Look at what they were doing in the 1850s and '60s. It was really incredible--almost art nouveau, somewhat Art Deco, aspects of Impressionism. There are so many different facets, and the perspective was so unique. We feel a real sympathy for that."

A native of Nebraska, Diener, 40, had always loved chamber music.

"As a violist, it's very hard to look at a solo career unless you're into Hindemith or modern and contemporary literature. It's very hard to find a repertoire. For me, a string quartet was ideal."

Besides, "string quartets tend to be really a very intimate glimpse into the composer's life," he said. "They're almost like love letters."

"Composers wrote different pieces for many different reasons. Symphonies were definitely PR pieces: You have to get your name out there, get your reputation out there. Concertos were more satisfying someone else's ego.

"Composers didn't have to write string quartets. If they did, it was out of a burning desire or sense of camaraderie with their friends."


Or a way of finding their own voice, as Beethoven did in part through the process of writing the six quartets of Opus 18. (The Rossetti String Quartet will play the last of these, No. 6.)

"The Beethoven is a really interesting piece." Diener said. "Parts of it look toward his mature style. The scherzo alone, it's really a schizo. It's wild-man Beethoven.

"In all the other Opus 18 quartets, you feel him treading very carefully through the very established masters of the time. This one is in the style of Mozart, that one is imbued with the spirit of Haydn. Even the C minor is somewhat influenced by Cherubini. But No. 6 is unadulterated Beethoven."

Of course, every quartet seeks to establish its own personal voice.

"We have a very personalized style of approach to the quartet literature," Diener said. "A string quartet can be very daunting for some people because they look at them as the Mt. Olympus of chamber music. They feel you have to have a certain experience in order to even go to a concert and appreciate it, which is not the case as far as we are concerned.

"For us, the most important thing is to make the experience for us and the audience be a mutual thing because there is so much intimacy involved in chamber music. You and the audience resonate, and in turn the audience feeds things back to you.

"In fact, for us, no matter how much you practice a string quartet, where you really learn is in performance."


The Rossetti String Quartet will play works by Beethoven, Ravel, Kodaly and Piazzolla at 8 p.m. Thursday in Founders Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. $36. (714) 556-2787.


Chris Pasles can be reached at (714) 966-5602 or by e-mail at

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