by Daniel Hathaway
The Tokyo String Quartet stunned its many fans when it announced its intention to leave the concert circuit in July of 2013, after deciding not to replace retiring violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Hazuhide Isomura. The group’s final appearance in Cleveland will take place on October 30 at Plymouth Church on the Cleveland Chamber Music Society series, when the Tokyo will play Haydn’s Quartet op. 76, no. 4, Alban Berg’s Quartet op. 3 and Brahms’s Quartet op. 67. British-born cellist Clive Greensmith (left) joined the Tokyo Quartet in 2002 and along with first violinist Martin Beaver made the decision to retire the whole group. We reached Greensmith by phone in New Haven, where the quartet is in residence at Yale, to ask about how a string quartet goes about closing up shop after 44 years.
Daniel Hathaway: Did it come as a surprise to you when Mr. Ikeda and Mr. Isomura decided to retire?
Clive Greensmith: Actually, no. We had been talking about what direction the quartet should go in, and as has been fairly well publicized for a while, Martin and myself thought it would be a good thing to try to find new members. But I think we realized that with a double member change and considering the longevity of the quartet, the most noble thing for us to do would be for us all to retire at the very same moment. Of course, there were many, many factors to consider, but the good thing is that we had a very nice, harmonious period of work, and that we had some wonderful recent projects — for example, the recording of the Beethoven quartet cycle — and the timing of it felt right. We’ve had plenty of time to think things over, and there was no sense of panic or a knee-jerk reaction. I would say it was about as serene as you could imagine considering that it is huge news.
DH: How far out were you booked when that decision was taken?
CG: Martin and I came to the conclusion in the Spring of this year, which meant, of course, that many people had already booked us for next year knowing that this would have been Kazu and Kikuei’s final season. And then I have to say the nice part was when several of our promoters pitched in and wanted to book us when they heard that the whole group would be retiring. So we’ve been a bit busier than we might have been.
DH: When is the final performance?
CG: The last concert will be on the 6th of July at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, which is the Yale summer school of music in Norfolk, Connecticut. It’s been our summer home for more than thirty years.
DH: And then you will begin a new position at the Colburn School in Los Angeles?
CG: That’s right. Martin and I will be co-directing the string chamber music program there starting in the Fall.
DH: How did that come about?
CG: Our group had been at the school for a wonderful residency, I think three years ago, where we played a sextet performance with a couple of very gifted students and did quite extensive coaching. Then after a year had gone by, really out of the blue Martin and I were invited to go back and do a little more teaching at the school and that’s when they suggested that we might like to join the faculty. That was in the Spring and obviously had something to do with the ultimate decision, but they said there were various factors. It was a wonderful surprise. I’ve been in the group for thirteen years, this is my fourteenth season, and Martin has been there for ten years, so it’s not as if we’re leaving after having just arrived. I think it would have been a very different situation had we only been in the group for only a few seasons. There’s no way you can really have lived this life and got everything you can from the repertoire in only a few years. It’s too much to get through. It’s all cumulative — the feeling in the group is very different after a decade, so it’s been a long-term project. And the new future at the school will be really exciting.
DH: What a nice golden parachute!
CG: For sure! An extremely soft landing.
DH: I was trying to recall the last long-term quartet that decided to retire all together.
CG: In this country, I believe most recently it was the Vermeer Quartet. And then before that it probably would have been the Guarneri Quartet. In Europe, the Alban Berg Quartet. So within a decade or less, including ourselves, that’s four major groups leaving the stage.
DH: What happens to the instruments?
CG: Quite simply, they’ll go back to the owners, the Nippon Music Foundation, and we know that they’ll be handing the instruments to another quartet. We don’t know who that will be yet, but there are so many ensembles that could benefit from them I’m sure they’ll go to a good home. We’ll leave that for the foundation’s board of directors to decide. We’ll have them, of course, until our last concert, so I have until the seventh of July to get used to this downscaling or whatever word you would use.
DH: I wanted to ask about your transition from orchestral playing to quartet playing. I believe you were principal of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London just before you joined the Tokyo Quartet. How did you decide to make that change?
CG: I’d been in the orchestra for three seasons and I loved the orchestra and the orchestral rep and I loved the music director. There were many wonderful things, but at the same time, the daily life of an orchestral player in the London scene is an extremely challenging one. The RPO, along with all of the major orchestras, pride themselves on being able to read quickly and cover a vast amount of repertoire. And in London as long as any of us can remember, there have always been funding crises. I know there are a number of financial issues with some of the top orchestras in the States right now, but this was something we met almost with a sense of inevitability. We always thought we worked very, very hard and didn’t always have too much to show for it. Now as an artistic experience it was brilliant because you managed to cover so much repertoire and an orchestra like the RPO could read and play concerts on very little rehearsal. That was very exciting, but for a long time I felt that was something I didn’t want to do past a certain time in my life. My heart was always in chamber music more than it was in orchestra, and I got very lucky. I moved to this country and got a job at the San Francisco Conservatory, and then the quartet were looking for a new cellist. Some very kind soul recommended me without my knowledge, and that’s how I was given the chance to audition for the quartet. Even from the second day of my trial with the quartet, in all honesty I didn’t expect them to choose me. But they did. That was in 1999, so almost by accident rather than by design I ended up in the Tokyo Quartet.
DH: The quartet has gone through a number of first violinists, but Mr. Isomura, the violist, has been there from the beginning. That’s extraordinary.
CG: Yes. But Kiko has been in the quartet since 1974 so he’s virtually a founding member as well. The middle voices have been rock-solid during those years. If you look at many of the major quartets, there have been changes of one chair or another. I guess our group has outdone itself in violins — it’s been rather an interesting journey. There are many, many reasons. If you get any string quartet or any intimate group of players or a small working organization of any kind, if you exist for four decades, there’s bound to be some change. What you have to do of course is try to keep the spirit or the identity of the group and the vision of what you’re trying to achieve intact, and accept the fact that sometimes you’re going to have to reinvent yourself and make a convincing case for the fact that you’re still there. That’s very good because you’re forced into being strong-minded and to work incredibly hard and be professional every time you play a piece.
DH: How would you describe the uniqueness of the Tokyo Quartet’s sound and its approach to interpretation?
CG: It’s a hard thing for me to say because I’m right on the inside of the group. I sometimes hear or read feedback from external sources, whether it’s a trusted colleague or whether it’s somebody who has heard a CD, or whether it’s an email that comes to the quartet’s website, or of course a review, and if I have to think carefully about it, it has been noted that our group has a certain homogeneity or timbre of sound that allows us to create a solid, shared vision. I think it’s dangerous to generalize because I don’t think that’s always what the music demands. When you’re playing a Bartok quartet you should know how not to blend rather than to have this seamless cushion of sound.
I’ve also increasingly heard people say — dare I mention it — that the quartet has been developing a more varied or more strongly felt emotional range over the last period of time. I hope that’s true because I felt that our playing was good but that sometimes it needed to be more probing. And one of the drawbacks about being in a group that plays the same pieces over and over again is that terrible enemy of the musician: routine. I hope I’m not being too fanciful in saying that our playing has a greater emotional range than it once did and that our sound and range of expression has expanded.
I also like to think that it’s very good to keep the machine of the quartet as rock-solid as possible, but I hope that our playing on stage has a bit more spontaneity and abandon than just being ordered, together, clean and polished. So those are the things we’re aspiring towards, whether or not every night we achieve the perfect balance. But I think we really need to be advocates for this tremendous repertoire and to keep it relevant through a vigorous sense of missionary zeal — and to have a vision of how the pieces should be played and a delivery that sounds fresh rather than premeditated.
DH: That’s a very thoughtful response to a difficult question.
CG: Well as you can imagine, I’ve given it a lot of thought in our last season. My God, this is the last time we’re going to play this piece — we’d better make it as strong a case as we can. There’s nothing like knowing that something is going to come to an end.
DH: What are some of the highlights of your dozen years with the Tokyo Quartet?
CG: There have been many wonderful moments. We’ve been very fortunate to play with some wonderful guest artists — we recently played the Schubert cello quintet with Lynn Harrell, we’ve played the Brahms piano quintet a couple of times with Leon Fleischer, we played with Alicia de Larrocha in her final Carnegie Hall performance. There have been some wonderful recording projects — I think we all felt very proud when we finished our second Beethoven cycle for Harmonia Mundi three or four years ago. And there were little personal moments, for example the first time we played Beethoven opus 127 in public — I’d never played the piece before I joined the quartet. The Schubert G major quartet, Beethoven opus 59, no. 1 — those were some moments when you realized that the quartet was playing at the top of its game and you were in a fabulous hall with a wonderful public listening, when everything seemed to go about as well as you could imagine.
There was a performance not so long ago when we played the Schubert G major quartet at the Wigmore Hall at a live lunchtime concert. That stands in my mind because I was on edge: it was a live radio broadcast in my own country in a place with the most perfect acoustic you can find anywhere. And of course there have been some wonderful, loyal publics that we have enjoyed all over the world. I remember once sitting down to play in Hobart, Australia, the farthest we’d every played away from home, and thinking, what kind of audience are we going to expect? It was funny walking out and finding very Anglo-Saxon-looking crowd who listened marvelously well. And there was another time we played for about 2,000 people in the Sydney Opera House, which was also a very exciting ride. There were a lot of people there who wouldn’t normally come to hear a quartet. It was a special feeling that night.
And of course, any time we play any of the Bartok quartets I get very excited because I feel that they’re absolutely on a par with the Beethoven quartets and I find them absolutely exhilarating to play. Sometimes even in a recording session you’ll get a special feeling. The last Beethoven quartet we recorded was opus 130 with that famous Cavatina movement. The quartet was very happy because we’d never made a recording in Japan despite the fact that the group was formed in Tokyo. We were in a beautiful hall right in the center of Tokyo and we sat down and read the Cavatina and I said to the producer, “I think we should just leave it as it is, don’t you?” And she said, “You don’t have to do anything else, it’s great just the way it is.” We’d never done that before.
Published on ClevelandClassical.com October 23, 2012.
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