By James Harvey for Jay Harvey Upstage
An eminent American string quartet is celebrating its silver anniversary by evoking a golden age its genre enjoyed, thanks to three of its predecessors who became well-known to music lovers across the country.
The Miro Quartet will visit Indianapolis Wednesday under the auspices of Ensemble Music Society, playing the same program the Kolisch Quartet did in 1935 when it made its American debut. The Miro's heritage from the Kolisch is particularly strong, since its violist, John Largess, was coached as a teenager by the ensemble's violist.
The Hungarian-born Eugene Lehner was able to provide Largess and his young colleagues with insights into the Bela Bartok work that the students decided to take up. A member of the viola section of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for nearly 40 years, Lehner had known his countryman composer well. The boost he gave the teenagers in suburban Boston over nearly a year of working on Bartok's Quartet No. 5 was invaluable, Largess recalled last week in a telephone call from his home in Austin, Texas, where the Miro has been in residence at the University of Texas for 16 years.
Formed as the New Vienna String Quartet in the early 1920s, the ensemble premiered the Bartok quartet at the Library of Congress during a live national broadcast. Included on the program was Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, whose first performance it had given in Vienna in 1927. That was the year Lehner joined the group and when the group took the name Kolisch, after its first violinist, Rudolf Kolisch.
"We worked on the entire piece," Largess recalled of the student quartet, "with him coaching us for a year. It took us a long time to get through it." The personality of their coach helped see them through: "He was such a lovely man," Largess said of Lehner. "He was a very soft-spoken, very sweet man. He told us stories about Bartok — Bartok and Rudolf Kolisch were both intense people to work with. He didn't bring that negativity into our coaching but told stories that Bartok had told him. He talked about the Hungarian style. He told us sometimes not to be too in tune and don't be afraid of colors. That was quite a surprise."
The Miro is including the fifth Bartok quartet in its program here in honor of the Kolisch's American debut. The 1935 program will be replicated as well with the performance of Lyric Suite and Beethoven's Quartet in B-flat, op. 130, and the Grosse Fuge, op. 133.
Deepening Largess' personal connection through Lehner with the Kolisch Quartet, the Miro is launching an "Archive Project" to last several years, in which it will also honor two other American string quartets of historical importance: the Flonzaley (1902-1929) and the Kneisel (1885-1917). Each came to prominence at different times and had different artistic profiles, using different means to become well-known.
In doing research on the subject, Largess found that the Kneisel toured tirelessly by train, the main way of getting from city to city during its heyday. Coming along later, the Flonzaley built its reputation through radio broadcasts, and also specialized in more popular repertoire, including arrangements of opera tunes and folk music. The Kolisch focused on new music, which (Largess points out) in the early high modernism of Berg and Bartok was concerned with communicating with audiences more than provoking them.
"Each of the pieces on this Kolisch programm shows how much was revolutionary and contemporary," Largess said, "and how much of the Berg and Barok pieces is lyrical, rational and balanced. There is just as much of that. There was s different idea then of what's new and where are we going."
In contrast, "the audience was prejudiced against these composers after World War II, and (some of the) new music was meant to shock and be ugly. Berg wasn't trying to make people stand up and leave," Largess said pointedly.
The result is that this repertoire can appeal to 21st-century audiences who are well past the battles of the last century's modernist struggles. The Miro also makes a point of talking from the stage about what it will play, Largess added, and that helps illuminate what is enduring in the repertoire it's saluting as it honors three of its great predecessors..