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CLASSICAL MUSIC

How Takacs adds a new performer

Vibrato. Tuning. Tempo. And bananas. Get 'em right.

March 04, 2007|Edward Dusinberre | Financial Times

Three years ago, when we last checked in with the members of the Takacs Quartet, they were preparing to conclude a survey of all the Beethoven string quartets at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. This month, they are scheduled to play two of those quartets, plus a Shostakovich, as part of the Coleman Concerts at Caltech's Beckman Auditorium -- but with a difference. Violist Roger Tapping has left the group and been replaced by Geraldine Walther, who had been principal violist with the San Francisco Symphony since 1976. Here, Takacs first violinist Edward Dusinberre recalls for the Financial Times the birth of the new Takacs Quartet.

"THANKS for coming!" Geri greets us as we convene in the studio for our second rehearsal since she joined the quartet. Andras Fejer, Karcsi and I have never addressed one another with such wide-eyed enthusiasm. Changing a quartet member is an exciting challenge; everything is up for renegotiation, from the smallest musical details to how we behave in rehearsal.

"No, no. I thank you for coming," says Andras, bowing elegantly.

"Andras," says Karcsi, assuming a doleful expression. "You just bowed to Geri. What about us?"

"Don't take it too personally," I say. "I'm sure he is thrilled to see us too."

"I brought food for everyone!" Another innovation -- Geri piles bananas, energy bars and calcium chews in a colorful heap on our grubby studio floor.

Rehearsing is more difficult than playing concerts. During a concert, we cannot stop to try different ideas -- but the presence of people listening in a beautiful space can inspire different phrasing, timing or sound colors. In rehearsal, the question of how to work and toward what end is tricky. Playing exactly in sync is one challenge. While concentrating on matching bow strokes or making the same sort of sound, how can each player retain an individual voice? We try to embrace individual quirks as much as possible. Sounding too consistent can be dull, but differences need to be managed carefully. If actors recite a sentence together but stress different words at different times, the impact will be dulled.

As we start to rehearse with Geri, I am wondering how we can balance the desire to express our ideas with the need to play as much as possible. Joining a string quartet can challenge one's confidence -- especially in rehearsals, when it can seem as if all we do is criticize one another as we seek to improve our interpretation. As a newcomer to the quartet 14 years ago, I spent sleepless nights in unfamiliar hotel rooms wondering whether a 24-year-old fresh out of Juilliard was up to the task of leading an established group. Geri's situation is different. She is a superb musician and instrumentalist, with a beautiful sound and more than 30 years of experience. Given the chance, she will absorb and adjust intuitively.

Together we play the first majestic, earthy chord of Beethoven's Opus 127 quartet.

"What sort of attack do we want?" I ask. "Sometimes we have played a really sharp accent on the front of the note, but it should not be aggressive."

"But not too washy either," Andras adds.

"Do it again, will you?" says Geri, interested in our debate but eager for the chance to improve something by playing it several times. We try again. I stop immediately.

"Our vibratos are different." Vibrato is one of our most valued tools. Placing a finger on a note without extra motion creates a pure, straight sound, but with the finger moving slightly in a rhythm below and back to the note we can make different types of sound. With a very fast vibrato, the sound might be intense or even anxious, whereas a slower, wider vibrato can make it richer and more expansive.

"Half-senza," says Karcsi, offering one of many peculiar terms in our rehearsal vocabulary.

"Hardly any vibrato," I explain.

"But enough to keep the sound alive," says Andras, supplying, as he often does, the qualifier.

We play the chord again and progress to the second note before I interrupt: "Our bow speeds are different."

Andras takes the tone of someone revisiting an old issue. "My two dear violin colleagues are using a lot of bow. Could you try using more mass?" Lower stringed instruments require more weight in the bow to make a good sound; if the violins waft, it will not sound unified.

"I'm not sure," I say.

"Sure," says Karcsi.

"Do it again, will you?" asks Geri.

We start again. The first attack is punchy but not overly aggressive, weighty but with enough bow speed that we don't press the sound into our instruments. With this new unanimity, our bad tuning now sounds particularly painful. Geri stops. "It's me!" She's taking the blame, but Karcsi, Andras and I could just as easily have been the culprits. We have just returned from holiday. Suntans and relaxed demeanors don't necessarily lead to great quartet-playing, however many years one has been doing it. We tune the chord, adding one note at a time from the bass.

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