Feature Article

A Talk with Cellist Clive Greensmith of the Tokyo String Quartet

September, 2003

Jason Serinus


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 recordings.

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 concerts.

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.

The Interview:

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 programs?

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 know of.

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 for us.

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 London infrequently.

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 in America.

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 quartet playing.

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 Niccolò 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 D.C.

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 should 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 interpretation.

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 that route?

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 one.

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 pieces sound.

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 way.

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 controversial?

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 everybody's minds.

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, and history.

- Jason Serinus -

© Copyright 2003 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity
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