UChicago Presents: The American String Quartet was founded while you were students at Juilliard. Tell me about the quartet’s early years.
Daniel Avshalomov: Rather like interstellar matter whirling in space, the players who were to become members of the Tokyo, Concord, American, and Emerson quartets were all involved in student ensembles at Juilliard in the late ’60s and through the ’70s. Some groups were formed by the Juilliard String Quartet, others founded themselves, but over time the players who fit together coalesced into the groups who made it into the limelight.
We had won two big competitions, Coleman and Naumburg, in the same year, before actually having chosen a name. When our advisors began advising us that our prospects were good, we addressed that. In that we were American and American-trained musicians hailing from different parts of the country, no one had any objection to calling ourselves the ASQ, and we reasoned that if we were still in action two years in, we might get a nice boost from the Bicentennial Celebrations already planned nationally for 1976.
Once concerts were coming our way, we learned by doing. Heedless of itineraries, fees, and the risk of exhaustion, we went out on five-, six-, and (once only) seven-week tours, playing whatever we had ready in large cities and small towns, on series old and esteemed as well as others new and brave. Over time we learned how manage our career—which was all to the good—but there was a particular whirlwind exhilaration to those early years.
UCP: The quartet has been resident artists and faculty at both the Aspen Music Festival and Manhattan School of Music for many decades. Generally speaking, how have your students changed over time, if at all? Has your pedagogical style changed, as well?
DA: We find that the technical level of our students has risen steadily, and that they share information easily and fast. They are generally well-attuned to the business side of music and quick to spot trends which have a whiff of success. With some exceptions, they are less aware of the great musicians of the past and of their interpretive styles, but part of our responsibility as teachers is establish and reinforce the tradition which all performers represent, whatever their initial awareness. They attend far fewer concerts than we did at their age, the culprits here being electronic substitutes and global warming.
UCP: Talk about the impetus behind the Enchantress of Florence project.
DA: Salman Rushdie naturally prefers to read from his latest opus, although he includes segments from earlier works—including one of my favorites, The Ground Beneath Her Feet.
But you may be sure that at least two of us speed-read The Enchantress of Florence before our first collaboration! Rushdie also knows and [appreciates] classical music, so it was our pleasure to find his favorites as we put together programs.
UCP: When asked which composer you’d most like to meet in a video a few years ago, you all unanimously agreed that you would meet Beethoven, mostly you have so many questions for him. And you’ll be playing his massive Op. 130 and enigmatic Große Fuge, which, of course, is a work which yields many questions. If you could ask Beethoven just one question (and one question only!) about his late works, what would it be?
DA: You’d get a different answer from each of us. For me, it would have to be about the C# Minor Quartet, Op. 131, which was Beethoven’s favorite. There is a long-debated note—or absence of one, really—in the 3rd movement, but since I am certain I know the answer to that, my question would be a longish one concerning the tempo relationships between the seven movements of that piece.
UCP: The quartet celebrated its 40th concert season last season. What do you envision the quartet’s trajectory to be from here? When all the founding members retire, will the American String Quartet go on, à la the Juilliard String Quartet?
DA: We have been so fortunate to do exactly what we love most for so long, and I know that while we are all in good health, able to maintain our standard, busy enough, and getting along with one another, we’d all like to continue for years to come. There have in fact been changes in personnel over the decades, so any one player’s retirement has not, and would not, spell the end of an Amadeus Quartet-like identity. I hope there will be an ASQ for as long as people wish to hear it, but the nature of the business is changing, as is the public’s relationship to the arts. Plus, travel, especially with instruments, is not for sissies. So we look at things a bit differently these days.