For 35 years, the Muir String Quartet has been touring the nation and the world, taking the stage at concert halls grand and modest, and garnering awards from a Grammy to two Grand Prix des Disques. The celebrated ensemble, with each member an accomplished soloist in his or her own right, has performed at the White House, presented works commissioned for them by leading composers, conducted master classes in Shanghai, and been profiled in the New Yorker. Since 1983, Boston University has been the quartet’s physical and artistic home. The group will perform at Tsai Performance Center tonight with a program that includes Antonín Dvorák’s Cypresses, Samuel Barber’s Dover Beach, and Bedrich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1. The concert is free and open to the public.
Named for the influential naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir (its original members were all avid outdoorsmen), the quartet has earned accolades from the Boston Globe, citing its “exhilarating involvement” with rapt audiences, and the San Francisco Examiner, which noted the group’s “impeccable voicing and intonation.” Two of its members—violist Steven Ansell and cellist Michael Reynolds—have been with Muir since its inception in 1979. Violinist Peter Zazofsky is a 27-year veteran, and violinist Lucia Lin has been with the quartet for 15 years. As candid and comfortable with each other as an old married couple times two, the quartet’s years on the road and close to home have been a continuous homage to the mostly classical canon, a repertoire they describe as the musical version of the world’s biggest candy store.
“We’re unabashed romantics,” says Zazofsky, a College of Fine Arts professor of violin and coordinator of string chamber music at the School of Music. His colleague Reynolds, a CFA professor of cello, who was raised by classical musician parents, describes chamber music as “a garden of the gods.” To hear them play Bartók or Brahms or especially Mozart, whom they most revere, is to understand that the string quartet repertoire not only withstands the test of time, but also will be reprised and reinterpreted for centuries to come. As Lin puts it, the members’ constant, nuanced musical conversation, even in performance, means that no piece is ever played in precisely the same way. “It’s always very dynamic,” says the CFA associate professor of violin. Some BU string students—a gifted group who come from the nation’s great conservatories—lean toward more contemporary pieces. Still, Zazofsky says, “one of the hardest things to do is teach Mozart, who composed 26 string quartets, because if it’s not perfect, it’s horrible. There’s not much in between.”
The group’s formation, inspired by influential groups like the Budapest String Quartet, which performed from 1917 to 1967, was a “colossal leap of faith” for cofounder Ansell, who in 1979 was already a renowned violist and assistant principal chair of the Pittsburgh Symphony under André Previn, says cofounder Reynolds. Principal violist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) since 1996, Ansell, a CFA associate professor of viola, has performed with master cellists Mstislav Rostropovich and Yo-Yo Ma. Reynolds, who has taught at the School of Music since 1983, has guided many students through major competitions to careers in major universities and orchestras, including the BSO. He’s also cofounder, executive/artistic director, and tireless fundraiser for Classics for Kids Foundation, which offers matching study grants for gifted young string players.
Reynolds credits the arrival of Zazofsky with changing the quartet’s sense of sound to something more creative and less dark. “He’s changed the quartet dramatically,” says Reynolds of his colleague, who played with most of the world’s major orchestras before he “decided to settle down into chamber music,” his first love. “He was a bit of a wild horse and it took some time to rein him in.” (To this Zazofsky responds: Wild horse? Me?)
In the world of musical performance, with the costly spectacle of operas, the instrumental demands of fully staffed symphonic orchestras, and the occasionally quirky requirements of a diva, string quartets are eternally low maintenance. “They asked us what our needs were for the Tsai performance,” says Zazofsky, who replied, as he always does, whether it’s Carnegie Recital Hall or a 19th-century French church: “Four chairs, four music stands.”
Based in a small, tattered CFA studio with walls bearing concert posters in an assortment of languages, the quartet has recorded 16 albums, featuring the works of Beethoven, Schumann, Shubert, Brahms, Ravel, Dvorák, and many others. Muir has garnered a Grammy (Beethoven’s Quartets Op. 132 and Grosse Fuge: EcoClassics), a Grammy nomination (Mozart and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintets with Mitchell Lurie: EcoClassics), two Grand Prix du Disques, and a Gramophone Award.
In its commitment to advancing contemporary American music, the Muir String Quartet has had commissioned works written for them by Joan Tower (Night Fields), Sheila Silver (From Darkness Emerging), Richard Danielpour (Shadow Dances and Psalms of Sorrow, which was featured on CBS Sunday Morning), Richard Wilson (Third String Quartet), and Charles Fussell (Being Music, based on the poetry of Walt Whitman). The quartet also gave the world premiere performance of the Native American collaborative work Circle of Faith, featured on National Public Radio. In 2011 and 2012 the group toured China, which is experiencing a surge in chamber music appreciation, with concerts and master classes in Beijing, Xian, and Shenyang, as well as Shanghai.
Over the years, as the quartet’s musical intimacy deepened, so did the musicians’ friendships. The four original members each had their first child within a month of the others. (That first crop of offspring is now 25, and they remain great friends themselves.) With the chamber music canon so infinitely open to reinterpretation, there is professional bickering, but at this point, says Zazofsky, it’s been reduced to shorthand—a word, a sigh, a glance. “The thing is that whatever they’re complaining to me that I’m doing, I’ve heard that complaint ad nauseam for years,” he says. “Oh, I’m playing sharp. Well, I’ve been playing sharp since 1989, and Mike’s leading tone is too high.”
“I don’t even mention it anymore,” says Reynolds. “I give him a dirty look, and he’ll play even sharper.”
This semester, a group of student musicians from Oberlin College are at BU to study with the Muir musicians, shadowing them during rehearsals. One of the students remarked, “The amazing thing to watch is how you guys can be shouting instructions and talking as you’re playing. You can do both things at the same time,” according to Zazofsky. “They were totally perplexed by this,” he says.
“What you’re seeing is the product of years and years of endless work,” says Ansell. On the cusp of 61, he is the oldest member, but only by a month. “I’ve been playing this music ever since I was in my teens,” he says. “But it doesn’t just happen. We play very differently now that we have more familiarity with all sorts of different composers. You have to have a really good baseline of stuff that you’ve worked out. And you have to be tuned in to the other players, be able to listen and play at the same time.”
As all the musicians like to point out, in case anyone needs reminding, a string quartet has no conductor, making the, well, finely tuned conversation among them crucial. “The composer is our conductor,” says Zazofsky. “Nobody gives us a downbeat,” Ansell says. “We’re constantly giving nonverbal cues.”
The Muir musicians are as fond of teaching as they are of performing. The quartet gives annual summer workshops at the Boston University Tanglewood Institute (BUTI) and has led master classes at schools worldwide, including the Eastman School of Music, the Curtis Institute, Oberlin Conservatory, the Shepherd School of Music at Rice University, and conservatories in Beijing, Shanghai, and Xian, China. Since 1989, the four have presented the Emerging Quartets and Composers Program in Utah with eminent composer Joan Tower; the Muir String Quartet is now resident chamber ensemble with the Deer Valley Music Festival, the summer home of the Utah Symphony/Opera.
The Muir String Quartet will perform tonight, Monday, March 30, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave., at 8 p.m. The concert is free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-353-6467.