By Claire Sykes | From the November-December 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
From the opening measures to the encore’s standing ovations, the Lafayette String Quartet’s final concerts, August 18 and 20, 2023, served as potent reminders of the group’s skill and chemistry. The group had been quartet-in-residence at the University of Victoria (UVic) since 1991, and the Lafayette saw its final curtain close on the university’s stage after 37 years together—solely with its original members, a rarity for any ensemble. When Sharon Stanis, second violinist, announced to her partners that she wanted to move to Montreal to be closer to family, she left the decision up to them. “I told them they could replace me, but they decided not to,” she says.
But first violinist Ann Elliott-Goldschmid, violist Joanna Hood, and cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni—couldn’t imagine the LSQ as anything but the four of them and instead decided to call it a day.
It all began in 1983 at Indiana University, with Stanis, Hood, and Highbaugh Aloni. For one semester, the three graduate students performed only with their mentor, the late Rostislav Dubinsky, founder and former first violinist of the Borodin Quartet. Elliott-Goldschmid took his seat when the four women joined the then-named Renaissance City Chamber Players in Detroit. That was 1986, the year they founded the quartet and renamed it Lafayette—after the street where two of them lived. Then they landed as quartet-in-residence at the city’s Center for Creative Studies-Institute of Music and Dance and at Oakland University. Dubinsky continued to mentor the group until his death in 1997, and they also studied with the Cleveland String Quartet and the Alban Berg String Quartett. More LSQ concerts followed, along with awards from the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and the now-named Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, among others. They stayed in Detroit for five years, until they were called northwest.
The group’s strong start gave them confidence and gave UVic good reason to hire them. For 32 years, this academic base and its financial security, “and the brilliant colleagues we worked with and who supported us,” says Elliott-Goldschmid, played big parts in the group’s longevity. So did their dedication to the genre and the music.
“We each had a daily commitment to the repertoire and the love of playing our instruments and growing as a quartet,” says Highbaugh Aloni. “Also, we were often motivated by the excitement of what four people can achieve when they work together—the teamwork and how each of us would bring something different to the table.”
Being about the same age also contributed to their collective staying power, as all members went through similar life stages at the same time, though each matured at a different rate. “The first few years we were finding our way, musically on our instruments and with each other,” says Stanis. “We are four different personalities. Each of us has a tenacity and stubbornness but in a good way. Because, as much as we could be headstrong, there’s a humility and honoring of each of our lives.”
The LSQ met with a coach twice over the years to ease them through issues. Once was while they were getting ready to play the Shostakovich cycle of 15 quartets, which they performed several times in 2016 and 2017, celebrating the group’s 30th anniversary. (A 50-minute, behind-the-scenes documentary of this project, Creating Harmony, produced by Eric Lamontagne of Compass Rose Entertainment and directed by Arwen Hunter, was premiered at UVic the evening before the LSQ’s final concert.) The quartet learned to interact more productively and express themselves in ways that would avoid anyone taking things too personally or confrontationally—skills they took into their roles as chamber music coaches and teachers.
Within the quartet, Stanis realized she needed “to assess before I speak and turn the volume down on my voice.” Elliott-Goldschmid found “that it was OK to struggle and have a good argument.” Hood got a better idea of what made her “tender or prickly,” and when to hold her ground or ease up.
She says, “It could seem like we were discussing our musical differences, but most of the time, we weren’t that far off from each other. It was more about the way we were moving through the process of talking about it. Everyone has to be valued and respected, to be listened to and given a chance to explain their view. We all wanted to play quartets and were committed to doing our best. As long as people are flexible and willing to accept someone’s idea and make it their own, the group will thrive.”
Essential to the process from the start for Highbaugh Aloni was “to find peace with the varying communication styles,” she says. “No matter how strong the differences, we always believed that things could be worked out and improved, as needed, and that what we were doing was meaningful, at least to ourselves.”
It took about a decade after its founding before the quartet could more easily arrive at consensus, whether about what bowing to use, whom to commission, or how to handle big life decisions. Early on, there were some personal choices they didn’t feel they could make for fear it might hurt the group.
Elliott-Goldschmid wasn’t the only one in the LSQ who, in those beginning years, felt she couldn’t take a vacation or have children. It didn’t help that family life for women musicians was discouraged by the profession in the 1980s and ’90s. Making it as a quartet seemed to involve painful personal sacrifices, with the industry “telling us, ‘you’re going to ruin your career otherwise,’” she says. “Initially, being in a quartet for us meant a swallowing of ourselves as individuals. We didn’t understand our power as individuals yet. And we were becoming increasingly unhappy because the quartet was controlling our lives.”
Meanwhile, the classical music industry emphasized female performers’ youth, beauty, and suggestive attire. However, in the cover photo of the LSQ on its 1992 recording—the first of 12—instead of wearing strapless gowns or being wrapped in gauze (like the recording company wanted), the musicians wore black turtlenecks and leather jackets. In many ways the LSQ served as a trailblazing ensemble for other female musicians, not only in terms of image management but in breaking lifestyle barriers too.
Elliott-Goldschmid’s then-husband longed to have a family. She says, “Once we realized that my quartet would support me, it was just a matter of when.” Even then, the needs of the group weren’t entirely out of mind. She and Highbaugh Aloni both planned to have children in December or January, so it wouldn’t impact the quartet’s touring schedule. Elliott-Goldschmid’s daughter Ella came into the world in 1993, followed by Abby in 1998. In between, in 1996, Highbaugh Aloni and her husband, Yariv Aloni, violist and music director of three orchestras on Vancouver Island, welcomed a son, Liam.
“It was important to us, as a quartet, that we discuss the expectations going forward,” Highbaugh Aloni says. So, for the first time, they hired a coach “who helped us with tools to communicate and understand better what was at play at this juncture in our career.” The quartet continued to record, perform, and tour. And the kids traveled the world with them, grandparents and other caregivers at the ready.
Raising children while keeping the quartet going strengthened the four’s adaptability and resilience, which made them stronger when faced with major change resulting from important life choices. And from chance, as change descended unexpectedly when Highbaugh Aloni was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001. That year, the LSQ was already scheduled to play the Beethoven cycle in Berlin, the first all-female quartet to do so—right after her surgery. Highbaugh Aloni couldn’t go. Her loyal LSQ partners didn’t want any other cellist, so they never got on the plane. The all-female Colorado String Quartet took their place.
This life-changing event for Highbaugh Aloni, who fortunately beat her cancer, was also a turning point for the LSQ, as it fortified the women as a group and stressed the importance of each of them as people. It also spurred them to create the Lafayette Health Awareness Forum, in 2005. For the next 17 years, the free public lectures and webinars—with quartet performances—informed and inspired audiences on topics ranging from cancer and the healthful power of music to managing pain and navigating Covid.
The LSQ’s solid standing in the community was built on the quartet’s devotion to its audiences and the music it chose to perform. Hood says, “We tried to fully express what the composers wrote.” Many of the composers have been women, with the LSQ being the first quartet to bring their works to the forefront, including five commissions in the ensemble’s final season. The ensemble approached every work with the same dedication and seriousness, whether it were old or new. “Over time, we all found a way of letting our artistry come through while having as much fun as possible.”
Elliott-Goldschmid says, “I hope we’ve instilled a deep love of chamber music in our audiences and students. Our students benefited enormously from observing four musicians who respect each other and worked together, unified, in overseeing their studies and musical growth.”
She, Hood, and Highbaugh Aloni are still on faculty full time at UVic, and Stanis, now in Montreal, occasionally will teach. Each has plans to continue performing in some capacity while spending more time on other interests. For Elliott-Goldschmid, it’s ballroom dancing and Spanish lessons; Stanis, French, jazz improv, and salsa dancing; Hood, jewelry-making; and Highbaugh Aloni, ballet.
They look back on their 37 years as the LSQ with gratitude. Stanis likely speaks for them all when she says, “I’m thankful we have been a part of each others’ lives up to our early 60s, seeing how life develops between four people’s relationships with each other and individually. And I feel lucky to have gotten inside the heads of the great composers, musically and psychologically. And of course, having the privilege of teaching students one-on-one and coaching chamber music.”
Stage lighting may no longer shine on the LSQ, but their students, and the music they’ve gifted to them and others, assure that the group’s legacy will live on.