By Greg Cahill
“My colleagues and I were in the process of discussing our larger goals as a group, something that we have done every few years to align our individual dreams and interests with one another to come up with common goals that would sustain us creatively into the future,” says violinist Hyeyung Julie Yoon of the Chiara String Quartet, explaining the moment the ensemble realized it was time to disband. “This kind of planning naturally asks each of us to reexamine our individual needs. [Violist] Jonah [Sirota] was the first to come to the group and say that he needed to pursue composition, but wouldn’t be able to pursue it in the way he wanted to while being in a fulltime quartet. When he told us, we celebrated that he was able to make this discovery about himself.
“It was a really beautiful moment for all of us.”
A few days later, the remaining members of the quartet—Yoon, fellow violinist Rebecca Fischer, and cellist Gregory Beaver—met to discuss their response to Sirota’s news and to consider their future as the quartet-in-residence at the School of Music at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the Blodgett artists-in-residence at Harvard University. But the musicians quickly realized that they all had individual creative needs urging them to move beyond the group. So, the Chiara, founded 18 years ago, announced last September that the 2017–18 season would be its last.
“When I look back, I know that it was a great 20-year run, filled with fantastic experiences and opportunities.”
—Jennifer Kloetzel, Cypress Quartet cellist
The Life Cycle of a Quartet
String quartets, often compared to a four-way marriage, face myriad potential pitfalls: competition from a glut of professional string quartets that has led to diminishing fees and a shortage of secure residencies; the rigors of touring; the demands of constant practice; heated negotiations about programming and interpretation; the challenges of family obligations; and other complications associated with clashing egos; to name a few.
That’s a lot to navigate. And that all comes after the challenges of finding quartet partners, defining an ensemble’s goals, selecting a name, choosing repertoire, locating management and getting gigs, and searching for residencies, among other tasks.
Before you know it, an innocent desire to gather a few friends with whom to perform Schumann’s String Quartets, Nos. 1–3, has turned into the hunt for a lawyer to help with articles of incorporation and a search for a board of directors.
“I was surprised by how often people said to me, ‘You’re so lucky to play in a string quartet,’ which I felt was much less about luck than about choices and daily hard work,” says cellist Jennifer Kloetzel of the Cypress Quartet, which disbanded in 2016 after 20 years together. “Our group rehearsed three to four hours a day, at least five or six days a week. It was definitely difficult to balance life outside of the quartet with family needs and personal desires and goals.
“But when I look back on things, I know that it was a great 20-year run, filled with fantastic experiences and opportunities. I loved being able to make a living sharing music with audiences of all ages, commissioning lots of new music, becoming comfortable in the ‘scary environment’ of the recording studio. I’m so grateful for that and for the many people who contributed to our success, and I’m thrilled to carry all of these experiences with me into the next steps of my career.”
In addition to the Cypress and Chiara, the Rubens and Cecilia string quartets also have made headlines in recent months with their decisions to disband. Sometimes a personnel change is enough to patch up differences or reinvigorate a string quartet. Sometimes a split is the best option. And while the break up of a string quartet can be painful, and even financially devastating, it also can be part of a group’s natural evolution, an essential phase in an ensemble’s life cycle. The trick is finding a way to bow out gracefully.
“In a marriage, you only have two strong points of view; in a quartet, there are four,” the Chicago Tribune once noted. “Resolving them, as in any democracy, often involves arduous personal confrontation. It’s no sport for the faint-hearted, which is another reason why there have never been many string quartets, relatively speaking, at the top international level.”
Certainly, there’s no shortage of stories about quarreling quartets, as the New York–based classical radio station WQXR noted in a recent list of string ensembles that split or faced major personnel changes in less than amicable fashion.
When Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
One of the most infamous—and widely publicized divorces—focused on the award-winning Audubon Quartet’s painful split after nearly a quarter of a century. In 2000, unable to settle their squabbles following a personnel change, three of the members elected to fire violinist David Ehrlich. Ehrlich’s response? See you in court! He sued his colleagues in a messy litigation that was splashed across the pages of newspapers across the globe. The lawsuit ended when the other three members agreed to pay Ehrlich $600,000, a settlement that cost the musicians their prized instruments. (A sympathetic and well-heeled patron later purchased the fiddles and loaned them back to the musicians.)
The celebrated Budapest Quartet, who not only travelled separately, but also dined apart, more than matched the Audubon’s personal animosity. Members said their practice of social avoidance helped preserve artistic integrity. But after 50 years onstage and numerous personnel changes, as well as mounting health problems among aging members, the Budapest finally disbanded in 1967.
“Disbanding was not an easy decision, but we came to the decision together with much love and respect for one another.”
—Hyeyung Julie Yoon, Chiara Quartet violinist
The Guarneri Quartet adopted the Budapest’s strident no-fraternization policy. That group’s legendary bickering was captured in Allan Miller’s revealing 1988 film documentary High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri Quartet. The documentary shows the intense combativeness that arose over discussions about tempo, programming, and other practical issues. But it also showed how the maturity of the members helped keep the Guarneri together for 45 years despite their beefs. In one scene, violist Michael Tree says that he sometimes felt “leaned on or possibly even persecuted” by his colleagues. But he added: “Then that feeling passes from one to the other just as a melody would within a quartet.”
The group finally parted ways in 2009. In his informative 2006 book Violin Dreams, Guarneri violinist Arnold Steinhardt shared the valuable lessons he learned during his turbulent tenure.
At times, the personal demands of a string quartet can be more exhausting and less illuminating. In 2000, Chicago String Quartet founding violinist Stefan Hersh found himself on the outs with the other three musicians. Hersh said at the time of his departure that he wouldn’t miss “the daily grind of coming up this hard against three other people.”
More recently, personal dynamics played an unexpected role for two members of the Australian String Quartet, the nation’s only fulltime string quartet. Shortly after joining the ASQ, violinists Kristian Winther and Ioana Tache fell in love and were married, a situation that dramatically changed the dynamics of a foursome already fraught with disagreements about artistic issues. What might have been a fairy tale storyline for Oscar-nominated director Scott Hicks (best known for 1996’s Shine), who was shooting a documentary about the ASQ’s instruments, the only matched set of Guadagninis, instead became a chronicle of the painful circumstances that led to the couple’s departure. You can witness the on-camera drama in Scott’s 2015 documentary Highly Strung.
‘An Unexpected, but Wonderful Direction’
While string quartet history is littered with stories of string quartets whose breakups were riddled with dissonance, others, like the now-defunct Tokyo Quartet, are able to chart a more harmonious course. Speaking to musicians who have grappled with the situation, it’s clear that the decision to disband is never easy, and requires respect and careful consideration if musicians wish to part on friendly terms.
“Plotting a future together, with aligned priorities and goals was always a huge part of the Cypress way of operating,” says founding Cypress violinist Cecily Ward. “We subjected every decision, whether a musical one in rehearsal, or a major turn of business direction, to honest and thorough scrutiny. We did our best to live by consensus, not compromise—and as a result, decisions sometimes took a very long time to make. Often the result of our discourse would lead us in an unexpected, but wonderful direction. The decision to disband was one such choice. As we approached our 20th season together, many of the projects that had been consuming us were coming to an end. We started to discuss what our next ‘big thing’ would be. Over the course of many conversations, we discovered that our individual priorities and needs were no longer as aligned as they once had been.
“After a lot of thought and reflection, the four of us decided that disbanding was the best choice. So we put our collected energies toward celebrating 20 years together and went out with a bang!”
Adds Cypress cellist Jennifer Kloetzel, “There were months of meetings and careful reflection, and consulting with board members and even experts outside the organization. At this point, we had been together for nearly 20 years, with three founding members, and we had come to the end of a number of longterm projects. As we planned for three upcoming Beethoven quartet cycles—we had just finished recording all 16 quartets—we had conversations about what would be next on our list of projects.
“Once we discovered that it was difficult to come to consensus, we talked about what that might mean for the future. Many groups who approach this point in their career have big personnel changes. But we decided that 20 years was a respectable amount of time to have been a quartet and that we’d honor our time together by working incredibly hard during our last season, completing a number of outstanding recording projects, and performing over 100 concerts, and then bow out together at the top of our game.”
The Chiara’s decision to disband also came about by mutual consent and as part of a creative process that fueled the ensemble over the years. “We decided to end our fulltime work as a string quartet after realizing that our individual creative energies needed to expand beyond our group,” says Chiara violinist Hyeyung Julie Yoon. “As one can imagine, it was not an easy decision to make, but we came to the decision together with much love and respect for one another. We are four individuals with different personalities, family situations, needs, and so on. Of course, there are challenges that go along with working so closely together. These challenges, however, were not what led us to end our fulltime work as a quartet. We are going separate ways because our creative energies cannot be contained by what we had set up as a group. We have grown up as artists and human beings together for 18 years and now we are ready to take what we have developed in four different directions. It’s a time of great change for all of us, and I’m incredibly excited to see how we contribute to the greater creative world.
“We’re thankful that we can end our quartet work on a high note.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Strings magazine.