Fifty Years of Making Music
On Monday, March 4, the School of Music’s Esterhazy Quartet will mark its 50th anniversary on the MU campus with a concert at the Whitmore Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Building beginning at 7:30 p.m. Two of the composers the quartet has collaborated with for many years have written original pieces for the evening. Andrew List, a professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, and James Willey, an emeritus professor of composition and music theory at State University of New York in Geneseo, are both spending time on campus during the next few days to rehearse their compositions with the quartet as well as teach master classes for student composers. Both composers will be in the audience Monday night and will address the audience and meet with patrons at a reception following the concert. Both men received commissions through the Mizzou New Music Initiative for the pieces that will be performed at the 50th anniversary concert.
“It is a very special occasion and one that not a lot of universities can boast about—the residency of the Esterhazy Quartet is something not just the college, but the university has supported for a half a century now,” says Professor of Violin Eva Szekely, currently the longest-serving member of the Esterhazy Quartet. She says she came to MU in 1976 while searching for an academic position that included work with a quartet. “I didn’t come to MU expecting to be here this long,” she says, “but the work developed into something much more than it seemed like in the beginning.”
The First Movement
Szekely says the quartet existed as an informal, faculty ensemble prior to receiving Artist-in-Residence status at MU in 1968. She says the founding cellist of the quartet, Carleton Spotts, made that recognition a condition of his remaining at the university. The other original members were violist Ulrich Dannemann and violinists Ruth Allen and Eugene Gratovich. The name of the ensemble is taken from the patron of composer Franz Joseph Haydn, Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy, who employed Haydn for more than 30 years at Eisenstadt, Austria. Haydn is considered the “father” of the string quartet.
“Haydn lived and worked on the premises of the Esterhazy Palace and was responsible for all of the music that was being played, producing new music on a weekly basis throughout the year,” Szekely says. “His responsibilities included looking after the musicians, their uniforms, hiring performers as well as conducting, playing organ for church services, and creating music for after-dinner entertainment for the nobility. And yet, for most of his time at the Esterhazy court, Haydn had to use the servant’s entrance.”
Andrew List, a professor of composition at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, makes notes on a new composition he created for the Esterhazy Quartet, while Assistant Professor of Cello Eli Lara rehearses.
The Esterhazy Quartet typically tours when classes are not in session, traveling to music festivals in South America, Canada, and Europe. Szekely fondly remembers a trip in the early 90s to a Haydn festival in Austria, where the quartet performed in Haydn Hall in Eisenstadt.
“I have to say I was really surprised by my emotional reaction to that venue,” she says. “The rehearsals in the hall didn’t seem to be that big of a deal, but when people were sitting in the audience and you step out there, you go, ‘Whoa. This is the stage where everything Haydn did took place.’”
The Current Cast
In addition to Szekely on violin, the Esterhazy Quartet features Professor of Viola Leslie Perna, Assistant Professor of Cello Eli Lara, and Assistant Professor of Violin Julie Rosenfeld. Perna’s tenure with the quartet is second only to Szekely’s, and the two have been playing together for nearly 25 years.
“Chamber music is a composer’s chance to be really intimate with an audience,” Perna says. “Big symphonies are wonderful, but when you want to have a conversation and be intimate with your audience and with the other musicians, chamber music is the way to go, and arguably the king among chamber ensembles is the string quartet.”
Perna was already a member of a professional quartet when the viola position became available with the Esterhazy Quartet, so she applied because she wanted to “be a part of this historic quartet that is very well known and well respected and has a lot of recordings.” Perna says the longevity of the Esterhazy Quartet is unique as is the ensemble’s interest in South American composers. That interest began with original member Ulrich Dannemann, who was originally from Argentina, and continued with his colleague, Carleton Spotts, who asked South American composers to write pieces for string quartets or to send him compositions they had already written. Szekely says the quartet began building a library of South American compositions from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and now boasts one of the largest collections of South American string quartets in the country. The Esterhazy Quartet also is committed to collaborating with contemporary composers and playing music of the day.
“Playing music of the day has always been a tradition for string quartets,” Szekely says. “Certainly in Haydn’s time, musicians were playing the music he was writing, so it was definitely music of the day—and that idea continues.”
A Listener’s Perspective
John Gibson, who regularly attends the quartet’s performances, was an MU student in 1968 and remembers taking his girlfriend to one of the first performances of the Esterhazy Quartet because he wanted to make a good impression. Gibson says he’s not sure he impressed his date—they never married, but the concert left an impression on him.
“The thing that attracted me to it in the beginning, before I knew anything about them, was the name of the quartet, which was the name of the famous patron of Joseph Haydn and other musicians, Prince Esterhazy,” Gibson says. “It was just something that he did way back then that is still providing great joy and pleasure to the listening public today.”
“I’ve gone to so many recitals and concerts in Whitmore Hall, and I consider it to be one of the greatest jewels in Columbia,” he says. “If you lived in New York, you’d have to pay $150 to go to these events, and they are just as good as in New York—it’s just incredible.”
The Esterhazy Quartet rehearses a new composition by Andrew List which will premiere at the quartet's 50th anniversary concert in Whitmore Recital Hall March 4.
Gibson plans on being in the audience Monday night, and he rejects the idea that classical music is just for “the snobbish and the intellectuals.”
“It’s not—it’s for all of us,” he says. “The thing I love when I hear a great composer’s music is the way that he will take something that’s nice and evocative of some emotion, whether it’s tranquil or whether it’s like a thunderstorm, and then he will twist it a bit here and there. It’s like little pieces of candy that they throw out during the performance, and that’s what I look forward to.”
Gibson says as a patron of classical music, one of the most important things one can do is attend student recitals.
“There is an incredible amount of work that goes into these performances, and it’s important for the students to be able to get the reaction from a live audience,” he says.
The March 4 concert at Whitmore Recital Hall will feature the world premieres of new works by Andrew List and James Willey and will conclude with the “‘American’ String Quartet” by Antonín Dvořák.
“We thought that would make a nice program—American-inspired music,” Szekely says. “Dvořák was director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York when he traveled to Iowa (in 1893) to visit Spillville, a small Czech community where he heard Negro spirituals and native American folk tunes that inspired him to write this beautiful quartet during his time there.”
Szekely says it is fitting that the 50th anniversary concert be held in Whitmore Recital Hall.
“The space is named after Rogers Whitmore, who was chair of the music department for many years, and also the original first violinist of the quartet.”