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Hail and Farewell to the Tokyo String Quartet

April 16, 2013

The Tokyo String Quartet Photo by Pete ChecchiaJust months after the film The Last Quartet, one of the most prominent and acclaimed string quartets in real life is calling it a day, quite without the drama in which the movie is marinated. It's the least you can expect from the Tokyo String Quartet, always a reliably excellent, modest, self-effacing ensemble, without an ounce of histrionics.

Yes, the Tokyo is quitting, after 44 years, giving its last local performance on April 18, presented by Chamber Music San Francisco, and the final one anywhere on July 6, in Yale University’s Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. The quartet is made up of violinists Martin Beaver and Kikuei Ikeda, violist Kazuhide Isomura, and cellist Clive Greensmith. Isomura is the only original member of the ensemble.

The Yale connection is a vital one, which explains the choice of venue for the final appearance together. With more than 40 acclaimed recordings and constant touring and conducting master classes in North America, Europe, and the Far East throughout the years, quartet members have somehow also managed to serve on the faculty of the Yale School of Music since 1976.

Here, on both sides of the Bay, where the Tokyo has made regular appearances for decades, there is regret over the loss of the quartet beyond the concert on Thursday, and a striking local connection emerged when asking musicians for comment.

"Son-of-Tokyo" Alexander Quartet, with Sandy Wilson on the right Photo by Rory EarnshawCellist Sandy Wilson, of the Alexander Quartet, told Music News:

The Tokyo Quartet is very much the reason the ASQ not only survived, but thrived through our first decade as an emerging ensemble. As recent graduates of the Yale School of Music, ASQ members coalesced around the NYC/Philadelphia area where we struggled to make ends meet as best we could as freelance musicians.

We depended on each of the members of the Tokyo Quartet as mentors of our group to coach and guide us as we carved out time from our fractured remunerative efforts to rehearse and develop our core repertoire. They were tremendous supporters of our early work and as friends and advisors, they kept us motivated and encouraged us to press on.

Their own travails with the media concerning some of their various personnel changes were the subject of much discussion and their successful navigation of that minefield in turn encouraged us when we found ourselves in a similar situations.

Their spectacular career has continued to inspire us for more than three decades. We were, in addition, fortunate enough to be introduced by them and subsequently coached by some of their own early mentors, Raphael Hillyer and Eugene Lehner in particular come to mind. Through the eyers and ears of that earlier generation of quartet stalwarts, it has not been difficult to understand where the Tokyo's generosity of spirit came from and their collective devotion to passing the "string quartet torch" to several subsequent generations of string quartets.

They have shared their passion, their fastidious approach to flawless ensemble-playing, unanimity of purpose and ultimately, their uncompromising excellence, success, and longevity with dozens of grateful younger ensembles, inspiring countless audiences yet to come.

That uniform excellence has created some subtext in appreciation, a kind of grudging admiration which took issue with "too much uniformity," or — what I also felt at times — lack of variety in performances. Violist and music critic Michelle Dulak Thomson says "I spent most of the 80s and 90s almost creeped out by their performances that were scripted to the point of replication. It was all so good that it didn't need to be any different."

Asked about that view, also expressed in some reviews over the years, Wilson looked deep:

Criticism of the Tokyo's too perfect precision was often heard, especially at the beginning of their career (mid 70s and even into the early 80s) when by comparison with so many of their competition, their repertoire was relatively small, and they were consequently so very long on polish.

It wasn't "perfection," but it was so much more consistently close to precision than audiences had been accustomed to hearing. Up until then, groups had not so much been expected to play "as well as their recordings" and even today, still for some devoted quartet fans, there are those who like to see a little blood on the stage — the authenticity of a good "live" chamber concert experience for them is only the more vivid and visceral when disparities, miscues and even outright conflict is revealed in performance. Y'all remember the "Is it live, or is it Memorex?" campaign.

Without doubt, the Tokyo's influence raised the bar significantly for all string quartets.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].