Brentano String Quartet interview part 1

Last year, journalist Shirley Apthorp traveled to New York to interview members of the Brentano String Quartet.

New York

“If you are in New York for just 24 hours, don’t sleep,” advises a laughing jazz musician from a poster at JFK airport.

That sounds like a plan. So much to see and do, so very little time. As the subway rattles towards the vast, thrilling sprawl of Manhattan, I think about all the things I won’t see this trip, from the Brooklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty to Central Park and Times Square. But I will see one thing: the Brentano Quartet.

There is a surreal quality to this assignment – flying half way around the world to meet half a string quartet.

My gloriously quirky budget hotel is straight out of a movie. Literally. Woody Allen filmed his “Manhattan Murder Mystery” in Hotel 17.

Even without the Statue of Liberty, even between subway, hotel, and corner deli, New York is quintessentially, unmistakably itself, from brownstone terraces and yellow cabs to diners and shoeshine shops. Spurning the jazz musician’s advice, I spend a good third of my 24 hours unconscious in Hotel 17. Because a visit to Micha Amory’s apartment should be a New York experience in itself.

And so it is. I jolt up the red line, past Columbus Circle, the Lincoln Centre, and Cathedral Parkway to Columbia University, every stop breathing a thousand literary and cinematic associations along with the warm, gritty city air. Amory, the Brentano Quartet’s violist, lives in an apartment near the University that has only Riverside Park between its front door and the Hudson River. There is a doorman, and an elevator, there is polished brass and marble.

It wasn’t always like that, Amory assures me. Playing in a string quartet does not necessarily earn you a neat apartment on the west side.

“When we started out in our early 20s, we had absolutely no economic plan in mind whatsoever, except to take a vow of poverty, rehearse hard, and play the best we could.”

The formula worked. At first, friends helped out with finances, but it wasn’t long before the quartet was winning awards, touring Europe, and making its name as an ensemble to be reckoned with.

“Word of mouth plays a huge part,” says Steinberg. “People know each other, and they say, ‘Hey, you should hear them!’ I think that’s actually the most important thing – how people respond to your playing.”

Steinberg and Amory could be straight out of a film themselves. Both are slender and wiry. Steinberg, who gives the interview in bare feet, sports a permanently worried look that is pure Woody Allen. His self-deprecating dry wit also recalls the film-maker. Amory, who is calmer, is also lightening-quick with repartee. It was he who spent a year in Berlin as a student, leavening the quartet’s otherwise strongly Juilliard-based training.

Though he had some of his preconceptions shaken there, he remains firmly against national generalisations.

“I couldn’t even speak of a German way of playing if I tried to,” he says. “There are so many different ways of thinking about sound and so many different playing styles!”

“In a way the differences between individuals are more interesting to me than national differences,” says Steinberg, picking up the thread. “Sometimes we play in Europe, and people come backstage and say, ‘You don’t sound like an American quartet! You sound like a European quartet.’ They’re saying it as if they’re giving us a compliment. And I think, well, first of all, I don’t really know what you mean, and second of all, why should that make us happy? Is that better? Isn’t it OK to be where you’re from? And play the way you believe in?”

“People who are serious about performing will play the way their heart tells them to,” concludes Amory. “They will soak up influences, and if there’s something original to say, then they’ll say it, with their own sound.”

Very often, these are the kinds of statements made by musicians who are trying to explain why they have no interest in historically informed performance practice. Scholarship is all very well, they say, but I would rather play how I FEEL. This is not the case with the Brentano musicians. Steinberg has devoted considerable time and energy to playing and studying period instruments, and he brings that curiosity to his ensemble’s approach to earlier repertoire.

“All of us have been around and have heard these sounds,” he says. “It informs what we do. A lot of it can be translated to modern instruments. Quite how much is of course an interesting philosophical question; we are probably in the middle somewhere. But there’s a continuum – there’s not a break in the way you deal with the instrument historically. A lot of what comes out of working with these materials in terms of the way phrases breathe, the way articulation happens, the kinds and varieties of sounds that you find, are very much translatable into modern instruments. I know that in my own playing, my encounters with period instruments have been one of the biggest influences on the way I approach playing the violin.”

This is not what I expect of Juilliard-trained string quartet. Amory gently scolds me for my bigotry.

“In the 70s and 80s there was a strong, technically secure, vibrant way of playing there. But that’s already a whole generation ago. I think the page has turned. There is room for quite a lot of exploration and for many different types of players there now.”

To be continued.

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Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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