Are we living in a golden age for chamber music? The case can be made that small-scale classical music ensembles are thriving, at least compared to their larger, more economically demanding counterparts, symphony orchestras and opera companies. For one thing, chamber music is best suited for intimate venues, and a pair of concerts this week prove the point, taking place in a converted church, the Palladium in St. Petersburg, and a former movie theater, the Capitol in Clearwater.
Viola player returns to old haunt with quartet
Paul Yarbrough grew up going to movies at the Capitol. He has a vivid memory of seeing Easy Rider there during his senior year at Largo High, Class of 1970. Now he's returning to his old stomping ground as the viola player in the Alexander String Quartet.
"We're getting our Beethoven stuff out this morning to practice for Clearwater," Yarbrough said a few weeks ago from San Francisco, where the quartet is based. Its concert Friday at the Capitol is part of a small East Coast tour by the group.
The Alexander Quartet is a durable ensemble, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season. Yarbrough and cellist Alexander "Sandy" Wilson are founding members. Second violin Frederick Lifsitz has been with the group 25 years, and first violin Zakarias Grafilo joined in 2002.
"It has been very stable considering the vicissitudes of trying to make a career in chamber music," said Yarbrough, whose group is as busy as it has ever been. "Even with this recent slowdown, we've managed to hold on to most of our gigs. There aren't as many of the freestanding, fairly well-paying kind of concerts that we would count on to anchor a tour a few years ago, so we have to be a little bit more spry. You can't just stick to your old fee structure when the economy gets worse."
In Clearwater, the Alexander is playing an all-Beethoven program, with one quartet apiece from the early, middle and late periods. In 2009, the group put out its second complete cycle of the 16 Beethoven quartets (plus the Grosse Fugue) on its own record label, FoghornClassics, a nine-CD set lauded as "one of the very finest available" by MusicWeb International.
Yarbrough, 59, whose father and brother live in the Tampa Bay area, got his musical start at Mildred Helms Elementary School in Largo. "The music teacher had a viola in the closet, and he told me he would give me lessons for free," he said. "I thought that was pretty dandy because it got me out of classes once a week. That was it. Total serendipity. And it led to a career as a professional viola player."
Growing up in the 1960s, Yarbrough played in the Pinellas Youth Symphony and the orchestra at Largo High, as well as a string group organized by a teacher and conductor named Edward van Aalten, who was "kind of a Pied Piper for string players in the area." Yarbrough went to Davidson College in North Carolina (and played with the Charlotte Symphony as a college student) and then graduate programs in viola performance at Penn State and the Hartt School of Music in Connecticut. He was a versatile freelance musician in New York, playing for everything from ballets to Broadway shows, before co-founding the string quartet. "I always knew that chamber music was my first love," he said.
The Alexander Quartet is the first of three string quartets to play in a new series at the Capitol, which is operated by Ruth Eckerd Hall. The others are the Voxare String Quartet (Jan. 14) and the Daedalus Quartet (Feb. 11), with pianist Navah Perlman (March 24) also appearing at the theater.
Grammy nominee on priceless Stradivarius
Violinist Caroline Goulding inaugurates another series, the Young Concert Artist Series at the Palladium. On Wednesday, Goulding and pianist Dina Vainshtein will play sonatas by Mozart, Schumann and Enescu as well as a pair of French pieces by Faure and Saint-Saens/Ysaye.
Goulding was 17 when her first CD, a recital on the Telarc label, was nominated for a Grammy Award. Now, two years later, she has a full performance schedule, while still attending the New England Conservatory of Music. There she studies with Donald Weilerstein (who also taught Stefan Jackiw, soloist in the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Florida Orchestra this weekend), mostly on the pieces she plays in recitals and with orchestras.
"This year my big piece is the Sibelius concerto," she said recently from a Panera Bread in Boston. "I'm going to be playing that a lot. Also the Mendelssohn concerto and the Bruch Scottish Fantasy."
Goulding, who grew up in Port Huron, a small city on the shore of Lake Huron in Michigan, started playing violin, learning under the Suzuki method, when she was 3 1/2. With her parents, special-education teachers, she moved to Cleveland at age 12 to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music. Her older brothers played sax and trumpet in middle and high school. "I just wanted to do what my brothers were doing," she said. "Without such a supportive family, I wouldn't have any of this so-called success or whatnot."
Today, she plays a priceless violin, the "General Kyd" Stradivarius from 1720. It's on loan to her from a violin collector in London, Jonathan Moulds, president of Bank of America in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
"I've had it since February 2010," she said. "I'm still getting to know it. It's still getting to know me. It's a process. I think with greater opportunities come greater responsibilities. Playing this wonderful instrument, I feel I have a responsibility to play it well, to dig as deep as I can and get as much as I can from it in terms of color and sound."
On Tuesday, Goulding will spend the afternoon at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, where she will perform and give a master class. "Whenever I play for students, they all seem fascinated by classical music," she said. "You want to start with the most accessible, so keeping that in mind, I'll probably include some Beethoven in what I play for them."
Others on the Palladium's new series are violinist Hahn-Bin (Jan. 18) and pianist Charlie Albright (April 18).
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.