The Pacifica’s viola player on the challenges and joys of quartet playing
We began our Shostakovich cycle in Chicago yesterday. Day one included two separate performances of Quartets Nos 1-3, once at 2pm and again at 7pm. We made the choice to do the program twice in order to be able to have the concerts in Ganz Hall. Ganz is located on the 7th floor of the Auditorium Building designed by Robert Louis Sullivan. Formerly a cafeteria, (Ha! –and, there is now a sign declaring that no food or drink is allowed in!) it is now one of the most beautiful and intimate performance spaces in existence. It also holds the distinction of being one of the only places that really works for chamber music in downtown Chicago. It was a hard but wonderful day.
We classical musicians rarely play the same program twice in one day. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that theater people do this often when they have matinee as well as evening shows. In a typical busy day in the life of a string quartet, aside from rehearsing our usual 4-5 hours we might have a concert or another rehearsal or an intense personal practice session on top of that. The point is - it often isn’t the physical side that we have to worry about as much.
It is hard to properly emphasize just how important and elusive focus can be. Focus and distraction is a huge aspect of performance management. In the media, there has been a lot of hype about attention deficit disorders, and many of us have heard of Einstein’s quotes about how limited our ability to focus really is. In my experience, focus is an acquired skill that is best accompanied by a serious interest in what you are doing.
A busy touring schedule of full concert programs has changed the wiring of our brains. In my first recitals as a teenager it was excruciatingly hard to remember all of the bowings, fingerings, shifts, and dynamics while dealing with basic issues of phrasing and character. Indeed, as a very young music student you start small with group classes, and then move to performances of single movements. Eventually, you work your way up to entire pieces and then full programs. Therefore it is an interesting phenomenon now that, no matter how tough of a day/week/month of travel it has been, or how little sleep we have been able to get, we have acquired the ability to attain intense focus through a 2 hour concert come game time. Both before and afterwards, we can all be completely tanked but somehow, we have learned to step up to the task at hand.
At the end of the first performance of the Second Quartet, I got the same feeling that I have when I get off the airplane in the Pacific Northwest - the desire to run through the mist into the redwood forests and crawl into a pile of wet moss to enjoy a gratuitously comforting and happy cry. After the incredible range of emotions we had just been through, I felt the need to unload. It is transporting, depressing, uplifting, funny, ironic, loving, quirky, sincere, serene, cold, furious, and joyfully elated music. A tragic mistake would be to assume a monochromatic emotional range by focusing solely on Shostakovich’s perceived angst due to his political quandaries. No, this is great music.
During the second Shostakovich concert the only wandering my mind indulged in was when I began to question my memory about which repeats we had agreed to do. I also vividly remember being surprised and disappointed at how soon the last movement of the last piece came. Even after this full day, I didn’t want these concerts to end.