Audubon Quartet says farewell in first of last two concerts


The Audubon Quartet

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

This summer, the Audubon Quartet is saying farewell, but not goodbye.

In the first of two final concerts before the quartet disbands, the ensemble will perform the first and last of Beethoven’s string quartets at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.

The Audubon Quartet is celebrating its 25th summer in Chautauqua. Founded in 1974, the members of today’s ensemble are cellist and founding member Clyde Thomas Shaw, violist Doris Lederer and violinists Akemi Takayama and Ellen Jewett.

Lederer, who has been in the ensemble since 1976, said that working together for so many years is like being married.

“You have a certain level of comfort that you can depend on, but there are ups and downs, just like any marriage,” she said. “That level of comfort is something that you can’t duplicate with many people.”

Takayama said the ensemble members have very similar instincts.

“I don’t know if that’s education or just instinct, but I find with our group, a lot of things are effortless when we have to come to an agreement,” she said. “Compared to some groups, we are completely natural when making a musical statement.”

The quartet just concluded a Beethoven string quartet cycle, performing all of the quartets in six concerts held over two weekends.

The Audubon Quartet will revisit its success with the cycle by playing two of Beethoven’s works in today’s concert: the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 18, No. 1, and the String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135. Both works are in the same key and represent all the periods in Beethoven’s emotional life and compositional career.

The Op. 18, No. 1, quartet was published in 1801, a poignant time in Beethoven’s life, when he first suspected he might be going deaf and was madly in love with one of his students. In the following year, he penned the Heiligenstadt Testament, a sorrowful letter to his brothers that he never sent.

Some of the movements are “almost stereotypically classical,” Jewett said, but become much more extended with dramatic content, foreshadowing the hugely romantic, middle period of Beethoven’s work. He owned a complete set of Shakespeare’s works, and drew on the crypt scene from “Romeo and Juliet” for inspiration for the slow second movement.

Takayama said the two quartets represent how most people go through life.

“In (Op. 18), by him using ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ he wants to express music using something so dramatic,” she said. “Then, towards the end, he is questioning life. It’s more of the inside of his world that he’s sharing with the rest of us.”

Though many of his later string quartets broke from convention, there is unity in Op. 135, where Beethoven returns to a more classical approach.

Jewett said this return represents a kind of acceptance of his own life.

“He’s not thrashing,” she said. “You hear in other works that he’s kind of exploding in the forms, that he’s kind of revolutionary. … In this last quartet, you don’t feel that raging Beethoven; you don’t see that desire to break open the form. It’s much more simplistic, with almost folk tunes.”

Beethoven was completely deaf when he composed Op. 135. This may have helped form the adagio movement, which Shaw said is ineffable.

“His expressionism is already in his head, and he takes it to far reaches,” he said. “It is really music that transports you, not just to what the music does to the listener, but to the performer: It allows you a release and connection all at the same time.”

Jewett said the adagio of Op. 135 is the soul of the composer.

“It’s a very spiritual movement that’s hard to define,” she said. “It’s the most transcendent of things written or created in the world.”

Takayama said chamber music brings new sources of inspiration with every performance.

“After we search for what we think about music, and we know what we want, still at the concert, there is inspiration left,” she said. “It hits us, different things. That could be what we think, what we feel, what the audience is giving us with their energy. We don’t know what happens, and that’s so much fun.”

Although she’s played these pieces many times, Lederer said she approaches them — and all works — with a fresh look.

“It’s like looking at a painting; you always see something new in it every day,” she said. “You’re looking at it with fresh eyes. You’re in a different frame of mind. That’s the great wonder of art is that it’s always changing, even though it’s written down. That’s why I, for one, keep doing it.”

For Jewett, new perspectives are abundant when working with students.

“Teaching feeds our artistry,” she said. “Young people see the music with fresh eyes. They have something to teach us. It’s important for us to start over with every new process and ask these questions again and see things from a different angle.”

All members of the Audubon Quartet coach in the School of Music’s two-week chamber music program and teach master classes. In their 25 years at Chautauqua, they’ve seen former students go on to successful careers as chamber musicians. Shaw said  the Audubon Quartet has helped to solidify the School of Music’s chamber music program.

“It’s not ego; it’s a matter of pride that we’ve been able to give so much,” he said.

The Audubon Quartet will perform its final concert at 4 p.m. Aug. 8 in Lenna Hall.

Free tickets — two per person — for today’s concert will be distributed, first-come, first-served, on the red brick walk in front of the Colonnade at 8:30 a.m.— 8 a.m. if rain. The line begins to form around 7:30 a.m.