Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer
After 37 years as an ensemble, the Audubon Quartet will play its final concert, featuring the music of Antonín Dvořák and a quintet with special guest David Salness at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.
“We could’ve gone to New York City. We could’ve gone to some European country,” cellist Clyde Thomas Shaw said. “Of all the places we could’ve gone, we came to Chautauqua, because Chautauqua has given us so much, and we’ve formed so many friendships here.”
Violist Doris Lederer said there’s an incredible electricity at Chautauqua.
“That’s why we chose this venue to play the last concert here,” she said.
“There are very few places that have replicated this energy,” Lederer said.
The group played its first Chautauqua concert in 1986 at Smith Wilkes Hall. Chautauquan Kay Logan invited the quartet to return in 1987, to hold annual chamber music coaching programs and master classes for School of Music students. Shaw called Logan a visionary, responsible for injecting new energy into the student life at Chautauqua.
Members of today’s Audubon Quartet are cellist and founding member Shaw, violist Lederer and violinists Akemi Takayama and Ellen Jewett. All of them said the decision to disband was mutual and amicable.
In their long history, the group has seen many changes due to marriage, death and legal dispute but has enjoyed a harmonious existence for the last decade, Jewett said.
She played her first concert with the quartet in Chautauqua in 2000. The decision to have a final concert in Chautauqua is symbolic not just for Jewett, but for everyone in the ensemble, she said.
“This has been such a supportive environment,” she said. “It’s nice to feel that we finish in a way that’s collegial and comfortable.”
Today’s concert features five of Dvořák’s “Cypresses” and the Viola Quintet in E Flat Major, Op. 97 with guest and former Audubon Quartet violinist Salness playing one of the piece’s two viola parts.
“Dvořák’s ‘Cypresses’ are very intimate, and the quintet is very festive,” Takayama said. “We thought it was a nice way to celebrate.”
Shaw described the “Cypresses” as very romantic. At the time of their composition, Dvořák was right out of school and madly in love with one of his students, Josefína Čermáková. He wrote the pieces for her, based on love poems by Gustav Pfleger Moravský. (Čermáková was unreceptive, and years later, Dvořák married her younger sister Anna.)
Dvořák originally wrote the song cycle for voice and piano and later arranged it for string quartet. The string quartet arrangements remain very song-like, with vocal lines for the first violin or viola.
Jewett said each “Cypress” is like a little vignette, bittersweet and love-torn, with the concentrated emotion of song.
By contrast, the quintet is vivacious and festive, Shaw said. It reflects Dvořák’s love of his country and the camaraderie he found among the Czech population in Spillville, Iowa, where he wrote the piece.
“It’s filled with great felicity; it’s filled with the best cultural components of Czech music: the dance and incredible lyricism,” Shaw said. “With two violas, you get this incredible dark, chocolatey range that permeates this piece.”
He said the piece is evocative of the vast prairie landscape of the Midwest.
“The size and enormity of America, at that time, was not lost on anyone,” he said. “So we get these sounds that are full of an open space that we don’t really get again until Aaron Copland.”
Though today’s concert is a farewell to the Audubon Quartet name, its members are not saying goodbye to each other. Shaw and Lederer are married. Together with Takayama, they are developing the chamber music program at the Shenandoah Conservatory at Shenandoah University in Virginia.
Jewett was in residence at Shenandoah but now lives in Istanbul, where she founded the Klasik Keyifler Chamber Music Festival in 2008 with support and input from her Audubon Quartet colleagues.
In addition to her work at Shenandoah, Lederer teaches chamber music at the University of Maryland and is part of the performance faculty at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival in Blue Hill, Maine.
Takayama will continue to teach at Shenandoah and is the concertmaster of the Williamsburg Symphonia and the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra in Virginia.
Chamber music performance and education will continue to be an essential part of the lives of each quartet member. Takayama said the beauty of chamber music is the opportunity the musicians have to find their own voice, rather than being guided or told what to do.
“That’s why people who perform chamber music for a long time, even if their group is finished, they still want to perform, because of what they can say, musically,” she said. “That’s valuable. That’s how we hope to be.”
For Shaw, ending the Audubon Quartet is bittersweet.
“I feel the pride and the privilege of accomplishment, but I also feel the understandable sadness,” he said. “Everything has a season. There is no permanence in anything.”
He reflected on the meteoric rise the quartet saw in its early days, when it was the first American string quartet to win first prize at an international competition. The Audubon Quartet members repeated this success three times over the course of their first five years playing together.
“I see so many young quartets that have rising careers, and I remember those days,” Shaw said. “You have to move over, and you have to give way to others that are on that track. You have to encourage them; you have to applaud them, and you have to be their audience.”