For over 30 years, the Tokyo String Quartet has enjoyed an enviable
reputation as one of the supreme interpreters of chamber music. Officially
formed in 1969 at The Juilliard School of Music, where its founding
members had journeyed to study, the quartet traces its origins to the Toho
School of Music in Tokyo. Soon after their arrival in the U.S., the
Quartet won First Prize at the Coleman Competition, the Munich Competition
and the Young Concert Artists International Auditions. This led to a
long-term recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, further
establishing their reputation. Their discography now number over 30
Although the Tokyo String Quartet’s membership has changed – only one of
the founders remains with the group – the reconstituted TSQ has recently
received glowing reviews for its performances.
The Tokyo String Quartet’s 2002-2003 season includes collaborations with
pianist Alicia de Larrocha in Carnegie Hall and other venues; tours with
pianist Max Levinson; and performances in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, San
Antonio, the Caramoor Festival, and the 92nd St. Y. The Quartet has
recently performed internationally in Milan, Paris, Amsterdam, Beijing,
Sydney, Istanbul, Toronto, Lisbon, Valencia, Madrid, London, Ljubljana,
Berlin, San Miguel de Allende and Dijon.
For the 2001-2002 season, the Tokyo String Quartet interspersed
performances of Brahms’ complete string quartets and other chamber works
with four new pieces commissioned by them. The premiere of each new piece
took place in the native country of its composer: Joan Tower (United
States), José Luis Turina (Spain), Fabio Vacchi (Italy), and Hikaru Hayashi
(Japan). The complete series was presented at New York’s 92nd Street Y and
at Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional de Musica.
Since 1976, members of the TSQ have served as quartet-in-residence faculty
of the Yale School of Music, and made summer appearances at Connecticut’s
annual Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. This interview with TSQ cellist
Clive Greensmith took place in conjunction with the quartet’s 2003 Norfolk
I look forward to hearing the quartet when they play in San Francisco’s
Herbst Theater on January 24 and 25, 2004. I note as well that their
former cellist Sadao Harada has recently been appointed to the faculty of
the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
Jason Victor Serinus (JVS): Let’s get a sense of the breadth of your repertoire.
What are you performing at the Norfolk Music Festival on your 2003 summer
Clive Greensmith (CG): We’re playing a number of works that we’re reviving from
the quartet’s 30-year history. Our first concert is with pianist John
O’Connor. We start on July 12 with Beethoven’s Op. 18, No. 2, Janacek’s
Second Quartet “Intimate Letters,” and Elgar’s Piano Quintet Op. 84.
The second concert on July 18 features the Mozart Quartet in G Major, K.
387; Mozart D Major, K. 499 “Hoffmeister;” and the Schubert Cello Quintet.
Then there’s a whole Beethoven evening on the 26th, which includes the
Quartet in D Major Op. 18, No. 3 “Rasumovsky” and the whole of Beethoven
Op. 130 with the “Grosse Fugue.”
We present a very interesting concert on August 1. Entitled “Divisible by
Four,” it features works where we splinter off into different formations.
First violinist Martin Beaver and I play the Handel Harp Passacaglia;
violist Kazuhide Isomura (the one remaining founding member of the group)
and second violinist Kikuei Ikeda (who joined the ensemble in 1974) play a
Mozart duo and a Dohnani Serenade; we also play Brahms Sonata No. 3. Then,
on August 2, we perform Webern’s Langsamersatz, Debussy’s Quartet Op. 10,
the Wolf Italian Serenade, and Richard Strauss’ Piano Quartet in E flat
“Vienna 1890,” a very early work that is rarely played.
The final on August 16 is quite important. It features Joan Panetti, the
Festival Director, as special guest. She’ll play the Schumann Quintet.
We’ll also perform the Schubert “Rosamunde” Quartet, D. 804, and
Zemlinsky’s Quartet No. 4.
JVS: Well before you joined the TSQ in 1999 and Martin came on board in
2002, the TSQ recorded a much-lauded complete cycle of Beethoven Quartets
for BMG in the late 1980s. Has the quartet recorded any of the other
pieces that you’re featuring on the summer concerts?
CG: Our last recordings in 1994 or 1995 featured the Bartok six quartets
and the Janacek Quartet No. 2. But we’re about to record the Brahms
Clarinet Quintet for Harmonia Mundi with Joan Enric Lluna, a marvelous
player who is the most established young clarinetist in Spain. He lives in
London, and has various teaching positions in London and Spain. Joan been
playing with us on and off for the last two seasons, and we like his
playing very much.
In the summer, we tend to add the new pieces that we’re preparing for the
following season. We’re working toward a complete Beethoven cycle in
2006-2007, which is why we’re revisiting the Beethoven Quartets starting
this summer. Our 2003-2004 season includes performances at the “Schubert
the Bohemian” Festival at New York’s 92nd St. YMCA, which will mix big
Schubert pieces such as the Schubert Cello Quintet with quartets by
Smetana, Janacek’s Quartet No. 2, and Dvorak. Hence we’re doing some of
that repertoire as well this summer.
2006 is an important year for Mozart. The TSQ has performed quite a lot of
Mozart over the past 25 years.
JVS: What’s the age difference between current members of the group?
CG: There’s about a 20-year age gap between us. Kazu the violist is 56,
Kikuei is 54, I’m 36. and Martin is 35.
JVS: Please share your personal assessment of the pieces you’re about to
perform in Connecticut. How do they speak to you?
CG: The Mozart Quartets we’ve programmed are really spectacular. We know
from Mozart’s own testament that he thought they were quite special; he in
fact charged quite a bit more money for them than for many of the other
pieces he wrote. We know from his admiration of Haydn, and Haydn’s
admiration of Mozart in turn that theirs was quite a special relationship;
Mozart was, after Haydn, probably the most devoted quartet composer we
When we play these Mozart quartets, we’re very aware that they’re a very
important part of his output. We’ve been rehearsing the “Hoffmeister” K.
499 over the last few days, and will play it in Europe very soon. Working
on it, we fell in the love with the piece all over again. It’s an
incredible work. The inner part writing is superb. You not only have
Mozart’s characteristic intimacy, but there’s also a wonderful vocal and
operatic feeling to the music in the way the players share Mozart’s
incredible melodies and play off each other. It’s quite breathtaking.
The “Hoffmeister” has one of the most beautiful slow movements of any
quartet Mozart ever wrote. The movement is quite big and expansive with
very, very expressive writing,
Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 130 is his great quartet that includes the
Cavatina. When quartet players are asked which pieces they could not live
without on a desert island, almost everyone answers, ‘Oh, the Cavatina
from Op. 130 by Beethoven.’ It’s a real gem. Beethoven himself commented
on how much the piece affected him. It’s an exceptionally profound and
deeply moving movement, followed by an enormous double fugue (Grosse
Fugue). It caused such a stir when people first tried to read it, because
they couldn’t understand what it was all about.
The 130 is about as big a challenge as there is for a quartet player.
Kazuhide and Kikuei, who’ve been living alongside the Beethoven quartets
for 30 years, still speak with incredible awe and reverence about Op. 130,
especially when one plays it with the Grosse Fugue. It was the piece with
which the Guarneri Quartet said goodbye to cellist David Soyer at Carnegie
Hall last season. Everyone in the Tokyo String Quartet was there to hear
it. It’s really a cornerstone of the repertoire, and a massive highlight
JVS: The quartet has changed a lot. 50% of you are new. You first came on
in 1999 after serving as Principal Cellist with the Royal Philharmonic.
What led you to make the shift?
CG: Despite playing in an orchestra, my main experience was not in an
orchestral setting. I was more familiar with the quartet repertoire and
chamber music in general. I’d been to various festivals, done my time at
the Marlboro Festival and been grilled by all the senior members there.
Chamber music was really what I wanted to do.
But in England, there aren’t as many wonderful residency positions for
quartet as there are in the U.S. The life of quartet players in the U.K.
is not easy. It’s very grueling and it put me off. I love reading
quartets, but if you’re going to do it seriously, you need an enormous
amount of time to do it well. In England, the chips seem against one being
able to really succeed and play the way you want to play.
I was really at loose ends. I loved chamber music, but there was an
opening in one of the orchestras, and I decided to go for it.
Surprisingly, they gave me the position when I was totally green and
didn’t know much at all. I struggled. It was a difficult challenge.
I played in the orchestra for three years. London orchestral life is
wonderful, but it too is grueling. You have to get used to sight reading,
which can be very stimulating and exhilarating, but after awhile, it can
leave you with the feeling that you’re not really getting under the skin
of the music.
So I took another leap of faith and came to America to teach at the San
Francisco Conservatory of Music. I had a wonderful academic year at the
Conservatory, after which the quartet approached me on someone’s kind
recommendation. I auditioned in the spring of 1999 and they asked me to
join them. So I sort of found my preferred medium in a rather roundabout
fashion, after having battled with orchestral life for three years. It was
really a struggle – I’m really ashamed to admit it – because it wasn’t a
repertoire I was as familiar with as I should have been.
I think I fell in love with quartets when I was young, mainly through
listening to records and CDs. It was very hard to hear the Guarneri or
Emersons or Vermeer or Tokyo Quartets in person because they came to
JVS: Is it better for quartets in the United States than in England?
CG: Any number of American string quartets were put together by musicians
who left Europe.
CG: I read a really good interview with Lawrence Dutton of the Emerson
Quartet talking about this precise question. A lot of people in Europe
forget that there was a tremendous emigration of some of the finest string
players and conductors from Europe to the United States.
JVS: Hollywood, Stuyvesant . . . .
CG: Budapest, to name but a few. All of these groups came here and set up
residencies. My teacher was in the Lennox String Quartet, which was in
residence first at Grinnell College and then in Binghampton. He came to
England to teach and was the first to give me an enthusiasm for quartet
playing. He was also one of the first to tell me what it was like to play
There’s a very lively and serious chamber music audience in the United
States. There is one in England as well, but there isn’t the support
system to nurture those groups as much as I experience here. Often we meet
young groups who are in residency at Rice University or Boston or NEC, and
they’re nicely supported by the institutions and making a living by
JVS: At this point, there’s only one classical FM station in the Bay Area,
KDFC, which plays “pleasant” classics. They might play your Beethoven if
it weren’t too overwrought or dramatic, but only at certain hours, and
maybe not in complete form. When I interviewed flautist and TV personality
Eugenia Zuckerman a few months back, she reminded me that we now have
three generations of youth who have been schooled on MTV, 30-second
sound bites, and computers. They don’t know how to listen.
What is your sense of what’s happening with classical music in this
country and the world?
CG: I have to be realistic about this. I agree with Eugenia. Having a
6-year old daughter has led me to look back at my own childhood. We would
be taken by my mother to hear Robert Mayer’s Children’s Concerts, where it
wouldn’t be uncommon for us to sit through quite serious, long and
involved works. We first had a TV in 1970, and it only got the BBC. There
were no commercials, video cameras, or video games.
The idea of sitting still and being quiet -- really concentrating and
listening to something rather than just hearing it -- doesn’t seem to be
happening now. It really does trouble me. Playing quartets requires such
immense concentration. I’m so aware when we do our frequent educational
work in schools of the contrast between what we do onstage and what
happens with kids who aren’t used to listening, being still and focusing,
and really hearing what a composer has to say.
There’s also a disturbing lack of interest in history. As a musician, you
have to be interested in how the music was written – the life of the
composer and, even more important, the influences around him.
It has been difficult for classical musicians to justify why we’re here,
which is why it’s even more important that groups and orchestras offer
more than the standard approach. I remember Simon Rattle talking about
Birmingham and its success. He managed to get a hall, educational outreach
groups, and a contemporary music ensemble within the organization, plus
managed to convince the Council to support the organization with an
incredible amount of money and moral support. He gave back a lot to the
community. He used to say that the orchestra in Birmingham has to justify
itself by doing more than sitting there and churning out Tchaikovsky
symphonies in the same way they might have done before.
At Norfolk and Yale we have a young group studying with us that has to do
outreach work as part of their residency. We have to grab hold of
technology and take advantage of it. We have to work with and use e-mail
and the internet to help kids learn. A friend of mine is setting up a huge
database which will enable access to musicians who talk about their art
and how they do things. If somebody downloads that information, it might
be of use to the Math or Art or Physics Departments. He’s working with
businesses to try to make it free.
JVS: That’s great. At a time when public schools are teaching lessons on
computers and TV monitors that force students to watch commercials, this
sounds like a breath of fresh air.
The Quartet performs on "The Paganini Quartet," a group of renowned
Stradivarius instruments named for legendary virtuoso Niccolň Paganini,
who acquired and played them during the 19th century. The instruments have
been loaned to the ensemble by the Nippon Music Foundation since 1995,
when they were purchased from the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington
Did you play a Strad before joining the quartet?
CG: No. It was big news when I joined. It was like winning the lottery.
I auditioned on my own [modern] cello. I first played the Strad a few
weeks after I joined, and I’ve been playing it ever since.
JVS: What’s different about playing a cello by Stradivarius?
CG: There’s a kind of luminous character to my instrument -- maybe with
Strads in general -- that’s very seductive and extremely transparent. It’s
a wonderful and very exciting sound.
I think cellos of this caliber are not ideal, because they often have very
strong personalities of their own. I really felt like I was in the
driver’s seat when I played my own cello. If I wanted to crescendo or
dimuendo, make a nuance or a color or change the pacing, it was all me.
With the Strad, I had the feeling that it was playing me. The sound was so
vibrant and so strong, especially when playing softly, that sometimes a
note would pop out in a certain range. It’s hard to play. To have to coax
the sound out has been quite an adjustment.
People have sometimes criticized Stradivarius instruments for not being
particularly ample or rich sounding right under the ear. But when one goes
out into the hall, they sound totally different. So there’s an element of
trust in there.
Now when I go back and play other cellos, I feel like I’ve learned a lot.
Playing the Strad has changed my playing.
JVS: How has the sound of the TSQ changed since you and Martin have
joined? What do the older members say about the changes?
CG: We spend a lot of time dealing with that. Sometimes it’s at a
subliminal level, as in the case of Mozart or Haydn quartets, where the
quartet’s sound in the classic repertoire has to become so molded together
that we speak as one voice. Sometimes it’s a process that happens without
any of us trying to do anything. Other times we’re really conscious of the
fact that there are some differences in the way we imagine the sound
It takes a good deal of patience to work things out, because the group is
quite democratic. Everybody can say how they feel about something, but in
the end, during each rehearsal we try to find each other. Sometimes it can
be quite rough; we’re quite a vocal group, which I think is a very healthy
thing. Iften a good deal of talking and quite intense battles are fought
about how we should be working and how things should really sound. And of
course, in a quartet you have so many variables -- my relationship with
the first violinist, and his relationship with the second violin, the
relation of the two middle voices – and those things change with each
phrase. There are so many things involved in constructing an
I’m interested in how the quartet used to sound. I’m so happy to go back
to 1970 and listen to their debut album with Deutsche Gramophone, and then
later on to listen to the CBS and BMG recordings, to the time when Misha
(whom I took over for) was playing with the group.
It’s interesting to look back sometimes and see how the quartet used to do
something; it’s always changing. The nice thing is that our two longest
serving members are not set in their ways at all. They’re very open. For
example, in the Hoffmeister, there is a whole set of bowings we use that
date back to 1984, which is when Kikuei says the quartet last played the
piece. He’s very happy to change the bowings if he feels it’s necessary.
JVS: How much do you dare change tempi and indulge in rubati at this point
in music history, when those practices are now considered “old fashioned?”
Would modern audiences accept that kind of playing, were you tempted to go
CG: I think that the need for equilibrium and one-mindedness in quartet
playing means that everything has to move in sync. It’s a bit more
challenging to achieve for a quartet which has the kind of philosophy we
do (which is in keeping with all of our colleagues, particularly in this
country). Our philosophy calls for an openness where everyone has their
own personality and we’re all equal. It’s hard to get four personalities
to play in a way that is not only committed but also allows us to speak as
In general, I think it’s harder for us to achieve the kind of freedom that
singers and instrumental soloists can have. It may have something to do
with the fact that we’re all so paranoid about trying to play together.
Having said that, when I listen to old recordings by the Rosé, Capet, or
Pro Arte Quartets, I hear major differences between their work and much of
the quartet playing I hear these days – I include our group as well. It
has to do with a general approach to employing nuances such as rhythm,
rubato, and how to express a given interval; how much of a slide you make,
or what kind of portato (lingering) you would like to use to enunciate a
note. I think that the style of playing has changed, perhaps because
recordings are now under such scrutiny, and people are equally evaluated
by how well they sound on records as how they sound in the concert hall.
I’ve just listened to live 1979 London recordings of three Schubert
sonatas by pianist Sviatoslav Richter. He would never have allowed these
performances to be released in his lifetime, but they’re coming out now,
and they’re wonderful. They’re liberally sprinkled with split notes, but
it absolutely makes no impact at all on the incredible drive and
orchestral flavor he brings to the works, and the extraordinary way the
All of us in the quartet listen to old recordings, including the
recordings of the Julliard String Quartet of 40 years ago on which Bobby
Mann took incredible risks. There’s a sense of abandon in what he does. I
think we should be playing more like that. I think playing always has to
be fresh, not different or new for the sake of trying in a superficial
When an artist plays too many concerts, you tend to play safe because
you’re trying to make sure everything is spic and span and clean and
ultra-precise. Particularly in the way quartet playing has evolved, you
may discover a group playing all the Bartok Quartets in one night, but
sometimes without grasping the deeper currents of the music or playing
with maximum freedom. When you all wear the same outfits and sit the same
distance apart with music stands a certain height, already you can be very
tight; perhaps its not a conducive environment for looking outside of the
box and being more inquiring into the way you could play. But while things
are stacked against us, I think we really should look outside the box.
There’s a pianist friend of mine who introduced me to a book by a student
of Beethoven who talked about some of the adjectives Beethoven would use
to describe his music. There was a list of about thirty words long that
had been translated from the German. German is a language that has
incredibly innovative and interesting words to describe complex mixtures
of emotions and feelings and sentiments that English struggles to convey.
Beethoven’s lessons were full of such words; that’s all he talked about
apparently. We lose sight of that. We say it’s forte (loud) or it’s piano
(soft), which is not nearly sufficient to describe what we hear.
JVS: I notice that in 2001-2002 you performed programs of new commissions.
Have you performed those new works at Norfolk?
CG: We played Joan Tower in a program that featured composers from Italy,
Spain, Japan, and America. We premiered it at the 92nd St. Y, and repeated
it at Norfolk last year when she came to hear us.
JVS: I’ve been reading about the controversies generated by John Adams’
opera, The Death of Klinghoffer. To me, the good thing about the uproar is
that it harks back to the time when debuts of classical compositions
sparked riots. Have you ever performed repertoire that has proven
CG: Not to my knowledge.
JVS: What more would you like to share about your music making?
CG: Right after September 11, we had to cancel a couple of concerts, one
in Houston, another in Minnesota, before returning to touring three weeks
later. It was a very difficult time because so many people were in such
distress. Everywhere, somebody knew somebody who had been affected. The
whole nation was in a state of shock.
We sensed that after September 11, the need for music and the need for
people to go to a concert was actually heightened. All over the world, all
of us felt that something very dark and evil and horrific was in
On the one hand, we felt very impotent and stupid to be playing string
quartets onstage when there seemed to be so many more important things
going on in society. But upon reflection, we felt no, music has incredible
things to offer people who are in distress and need to be reminded of the
beauty in life. For example, in a quartet such as the “Hoffmeister,” an
extraordinary idealism underlies a musical journey during which themes
develop and transform, and then in the end come together with a sense of
harmony and fulfillment.
We feel that music is terribly relevant. Aside from the sheer beauty of
hearing this music and appreciating its structure and the relation between
the players, there’s something very intimate, very beautiful, and very
meaningful about the experience that we feel strongly about.
Chamber music is an intimate medium that can speak to people in many
different ways. When people come together for a concert, they need to get
away from the frantic pace of life as it is now in order to be able to sit
through and really listen to music rather than treating it as a sound
bite. This is very important, something we experience in the way people
listen to us. It’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. In our
relationship with live audiences, we want to make a difference in the way
people enter the hall and make a connection with the music, the composer,