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Classical musicians far from crusty stereotype in American Stage production of 'Opus'

Arnold Steinhardt knows all about the hothouse atmosphere of a classical string quartet. For 45 years, he was first violin in the Guarneri String Quartet, one of the most honored ensembles of its time. So when Steinhardt went to see a play about the inner workings of a quartet, Opus by Michael Hollinger, his reaction was bound to be interesting.

"The play was unquestionably gripping, yet the evening left me feeling slightly uncomfortable,'' Steinhardt recently wrote on his blog, Fiddler's Beat (arnoldsteinhardt.com). "For 90 minutes, I had witnessed the first violinist's love affair with the violist, the violist's eventual firing and subsequent disappearance, the beginning of yet another relationship with the newly arrived violist, and an act (that will go unnamed) of shocking violence.''

At first, Steinhardt was inclined to write Opus off as just another overwrought drama. But then he realized Hollinger was onto something significant.

"Haydn's disturbingly beautiful The Seven Last Words, Mozart's other-worldly fantasy in the Dissonant, Beethoven's tempestuous daring in the Great Fugue and Schubert's desperate melancholy in Death and the Maiden all demand intense work, great artistry and deft social skills,'' he wrote. "When four string players sit down to grapple with these monumental string quartets, things don't necessarily go smoothly. While the Guarneris have had little more than very heated discussions at times, other quartets have experienced incompatibility, dismissal, affairs, divorce, litigation, nervous breakdowns and even suicide.''

Opus, which opens Friday at American Stage, is about the intense relationships within the fictional Lazara Quartet, which is going through a crisis as one of its founders, the viola player, has been kicked out of the group. Now the remaining members, men in their 40s, are replacing him with a young woman.

"The play mirrors most aspects of being any kind of an artist and being a member of a group or ensemble,'' said Steve Garland, who plays the exiled viola player. The actor found the differences between how musicians and theater people relate to each other in rehearsal fascinating.

"How actors relate to each other is a completely different world,'' Garland said. "Actors will be more passive — sometimes, passive aggressive, unfortunately — and they'll be a lot nicer about trying to be diplomatic. Musicians, though, are exceedingly objective. When somebody is playing like s---, they call them out on it.''

"There's a great quote in the show,'' said Nick White, a composer and actor who is musical adviser on the production. "Elliot (the first violin) says that if we sat around patting ourselves on the back all the time, we'd never get any work done.''

The difference between a string quartet and a play is that the quartet is democratic. "Everyone in a quartet has their say,'' White said. "Theater is a dictatorship; a director has the last word on everything.''

Playwright Hollinger started out as a classical musician himself, getting a bachelor's degree in viola performance at the Oberlin Conservatory before switching to theater. He has seven full-length plays to his credit, but Opus, premiered in 2006, was his first to be set in the music world that he knows so well.

"In some ways, this is my most personal play," Hollinger told playbill.com. "The characters are closer to me, demographically. They're guys in their 40s, all in different domestic situations. One is a dad with two kids. I'm a dad with two kids. One is a violist. I was supposed to be a professional violist. Chamber music has been very good to me, and I finally felt like, 'Maybe I can actually write a chamber play about chamber musicians, composing a kind of music with the voices of the characters.' ''

Hollinger has cited a book by Steinhardt about the Guarneri Quartet, Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony, as a helpful resource in creating his fictional ensemble. There's also a DVD on the group, High Fidelity: Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet, which White showed to the American Stage cast.

Beethoven's Op. 131 string quartet is the elusive piece for the Lazara Quartet, whose members argue passionately about its interpretation as they prepare for a concert at the White House. When the American Stage cast assembled for its rehearsals, White gave everyone a recording of music in the show, including a performance of Beethoven's late quartet by the Alban Berg Quartet.

"It's quite possibly the greatest quartet ever written. Hollinger in his script says it's the greatest,'' said Garland.

"It's so traumatic, and so dark, and so strange, '' White said.

Garland thinks that theatergoers will be surprised at how dramatic the trials and tribulations of a string quartet can be.

"People think it's cozy all the time, and it's not,'' he said. "Tempers flare in any kind of group situation. And classical music doesn't mean a bunch of stuffed shirts playing dusty music. These people are real.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at tampabay.com/blogs/critics.

Who's playing the music during the show?

It's not the actors. Most of the music was recorded by the Vertigo String Quartet. Still, the cast had to look convincing as string players. That's where Nick White came in. "We started with the look of it,'' said White, a composer and actor who is musical adviser for the production. "We talked a lot about the look of the bow on the strings. We got really meticulous with moving their bows in time with the music and on the correct string.''

What instruments are in a string quartet?

The classical string quartet has two violinists, a violist and a cellist. (A viola and a violin are similar, but not the same. A viola is a bit larger, for one thing.)

'It's the weirdest
thing, a quartet'

An Equal Music, a novel by Vikram Seth, is
about a violinist in a quartet. "It's the weirdest thing, a quartet," one member says. "I don't know what to compare it to. A marriage? A firm? A platoon under fire? A self-regarding, self-destructive priesthood? It has so many different tensions mixed in with its pleasures."

Beethoven cycles

All the great composers have their string quartet cycles — Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Dvorak, Bartok, Shostakovich, Schoenberg — but the Beethoven cycle of 16 quartets is the summit of the form. There have been many great recordings of all the Beethoven string quartets. I grew up with the Quartetto Italiano cycle from the late 1960s, and it remains a favorite. Other classic Beethoven recordings include those by the Budapest Quartet, the Alban Berg Quartet and the Takacs Quartet. The Tokyo String Quartet has just recorded the cycle for the second time with the release of a three-CD set of the late quartets for Harmonia Mundi.

American quartets

The Emerson String Quartet, which takes its name from Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the most celebrated American group, with nine Grammy Awards for the complete quartets, among others, of Beethoven, Shostakovich, Bartok and Mendelssohn for Deutsche Grammophon. Here are a few other homegrown quartets whose music is worth exploring:

. For many years, the Juilliard Quartet set the standard for American string quartets. The group's membership has been in flux lately, but its catalog of recordings (mostly for Sony) remains a treasure.

. The St. Lawrence Quartet — founded in Toronto, now ensemble-in-residence at Stanford University — "are remarkable not simply for the quality of their music making, exalted as it is, but for the joy they take in the act of connection," wrote Alex Ross, music critic for the New Yorker.

. Violist Paul Yarbrough, a Clearwater native, was a founder of the Alexander String Quartet in 1981, and the group, long based in San Francisco, is still going strong. It released its second Beethoven cycle last year for Foghorn Classics.

If you go

Opus

The play by Michael Hollinger opens Friday and runs through Nov. 28 at American Stage, 163 Third St. N, St. Petersburg. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. $29-$50, with student rush tickets $10 a half-hour before curtain. Pay what you can Tuesday and Nov. 16. Preview tonight. (727) 823-7529; americanstage.org.

Classical musicians far from crusty stereotype in American Stage production of 'Opus' 11/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 8:21am]

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