WEEKEND catches up with Tokyo String Quartet’s first violinist Martin Beaver and discusses the joys of playing a Stradivarius, Japanese (the language) and Sesame Street a year before his diamond anniversary (which means 10 years?) with the group.
Q. O.K., so what’s the group’s philosophy?
A. We try to get to the essence of the music of each composer that we’re playing, to project it as one whole.
Q. So, it’s a really collaborative effort.
A. Absolutely; quartet-playing in general is a very collaborative art.
Q. Sure, but from what I hear, there is some form of a hierarchy, right? The first violin has … [help me … ]
A. Well, I think there are different types of quartets, and many different systems actually work. In our quartet everybody has an equal say, so I’d say that we don’t really have a clear leader. Of course, depending on the music that we perform, sometimes the first violin takes the leading role, but even in such pieces — like the early works of Haydn and Mozart — very often I rely on my colleagues to keep things going and even lead.
Q. How does it feel, playing a Stradivarius? Is it stressful?
A. Playing a Strad is a great privilege, of course …
A. Yeah. We’ve been lucky to have these instruments on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation in Japan since the mid-’90s. Playing a Strad is a little bit like walking a tight rope: It gives you all sorts of possibilities of colors of sounds and it will let you have a great range of dynamics, from very, very soft to extremely loud and penetrating. Then — and I wouldn’t call this a downside — the violin, and all other instruments, speak so well that whatever we do on them is immediately apparent. So, if you do something nice, everybody hears it. But if you hit the wrong note, or if you do something that’s not so nice, it will also project very clearly. So it’s a little like walking a tight rope.
Q. Like a double-edged sword.
A. Exactly, but I’d say that the merits outweigh the drawbacks.
Q. How does quartet-playing compare to symphony orchestra performance and solo work?
A. That’s another double-edged sword! The wonderful thing about the quartet is that you have four musicians that are creating very symphonic types of sound and interpretations. There are just four of us and we’re responsible for the interpretation of every work. I’d say that symphony orchestras play great pieces as well, but as an orchestral musician you have to submit to the wishes of the conductor, who is ultimately responsible for the interpretation. In a way, my impression of orchestral playing is that you’re perhaps one step removed from actively being a part of creating and interpreting, while in a quartet there may be four, very often different opinions about a musical phrase or a musical work as a whole. In that way, we have to look to iron out these differences and present a unified idea of the piece. Also, string players belong in a large section of the orchestra, so you don’t necessarily feel the total scrutiny of the audience. So, a quartet has the best of both words: you’re kind of like a soloist, but also creating an ensemble sound.
Q. So, two of the members of the quartet are Japanese, right?
Q. And what language do you communicate in?
A. I’d have to take you back to 1981, where the original first violinist left the group and was replaced by Peter Oundjian, who for many years was on faculty at the Yale School of Music teaching violin. He was the first Japanese member to come into the group. Before that their language during rehearsal was Japanese. But ever since Peter joined, and up until today, we rehearse in English.
Q. But do you get Japanese?
A. A little bit. Both the cellist [Clive Greensmith], who is British, and myself have Japanese wives — we were married before joining the quartet. At the same time, we’ve been going to Japan a lot to perform with the quartet and teach, so I’ve picked up a little bit of Japanese. I wouldn’t say I really speak it, but I do know how to order food and teach music in Japanese.
Q. The important stuff.
Q. OK, I’ve been dying to ask: how was it performing on Sesame Street?
A. Oh, that was before my time.
Q. That’s unfortunate.
A. You can see the clips on YouTube, though! I think they had a really fun time because at that point some of the quartet’s members’ kids were quite young, so I think they were happy to see their fathers on Sesame Street.
Q. Cool. Can I see your Strad?