Artist Interview: Tokyo Quartet

By Erik Petersons on January 9, 2013

The Tokyo Quartet is on its farewell season after 44 years performing around the world.  As a cornerstone to our series for the entirety of PCMS’ history, there are only two more opportunities to hear them–Sunday, January 20th at the Perelman Theater and Sunday, May 5th at the Independence Seaport Museum.  We caught up with Clive Greensmith, the cellist of quartet since 1999, on a break from their tour in Europe.  We discussed the works they are performing this season, favorite memories of the quartet and their individual plans moving forward after the quartet disbands this summer.

Erik Petersons: Having announced that this will be your last season together as a quartet, how did you decide on the programs you will be performing?  Were there pieces you particularly wanted to revisit, or alternatively, play together for the first time?

Clive Greensmith: Well in advance of our final season together, we took care to set aside ample time in which to discuss the many complicated issues affecting our choice of repertoire. Knowing that this would be our final season certainly made the task more meaningful, and I think there were undoubtedly mixed emotions as we began to put programs together. We always strive to find a good balance between works of contrasting style and for this season we made a conscious decision to include works by Haydn and Bartok. These two masters of the string quartet medium happen to be right at the top of our list of favorite composers, and indeed, they really sit marvelously well together on any concert program. With a clear theme for our final series as the resident quartet at the 92nd Street Y in New York, we happily set about finding three interesting programs built around these two composers. Of course, we are playing a large number of other programs throughout the year, but there's certainly a good chance that works from either one of these composers will turn up every night. One lovely discovery for us has been the vividly colored second quartet of Kodaly, a piece none of us have ever played before. We will also be learning the last, and incomplete quartet by Haydn, opus 103 in D minor–a rather dark and dramatic work that comes to an abrupt end after the minuet. We all have our favorite quartets by Bartok and it's almost impossible to find a clear winner. However, you can't help marveling at the superb architectural form of number four, with its tersely dramatic style and astonishingly original and captivating slow movement. There again, the profoundly noble sentiment of number six seems to transport the listener to such a personal place, and perhaps carries more emotional weight than the earlier quartets do. We will perform number six in our final concert together on July 6th at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival. Two major works of Schubert seemed impossible to ignore–the string quintet and the G major quartet, both pieces which we felt we needed to reexamine.

EP: Looking back at your time with the Quartet, what are some of your favorite performances together? 

CG: I clearly remember my first concert with the quartet in Tokyo, and it was meaningful on many levels. My wife is from Tokyo and was in attendance that night, alongside many old friends and colleagues. I always feel a certain sense of excitement and at the same time, deep humility, when we perform in Japan and looking back now, fourteen years later, this is pure nostalgia. I recall a performance of the Schubert G major quartet here for PCMS several years ago in the Perlman Theater. We had invested a good deal of time in the piece and I had waited many years for the chance to perform the work. The piece can sometimes feel overdone and repetitive, but on this occasion, it felt fresh, spontaneous and overwhelming–in a good way! Several years ago, a truly inspiring performance of the Brahms piano quintet with Leon Fleisher at Duke University convinced me that I had been wrong to find the work less persuasive than the piano quartets. Moreover, the rehearsals with Leon were just as memorable as the final performance. Another favorite memory also involves the music of Brahms, when I spied a couple in the front row of the Hercules Saal in Munich turning pages, as we began the final movement of the third quartet op 67. I at first worried that we must have been boring them so much that they had resorted to reading a magazine, but when I saw that they were passing knowing glances between themselves that seemed to fit perfectly with the slightly quirky final movement of the work, I realized that in fact they were following along with the score! Another memory involving erudite listeners was in 2009, a year when we performed cycles of Haydn string quartets in various European cities. Immediately after a performance of the six quartets, Op 76, at the Conservatorio Verdi in Milan, I opened the door of my dressing room only to be confronted by Alfred Brendel, holding the score of the complete set of quartets opus 76! Most recently, we performed two Bartok quartets in the same evening at London's Wigmore Hall, his fourth and sixth. I have rarely experienced such a feeling of sustained tension, and it seemed as if the group was really firing on all cylinders. By the time we reached the end of the sixth quartet, we were quite literally, a spent force. Afterwards, I remember thinking that even if we never managed to play at that level again, it would have been ample reward just to have been part of that performance.

EP: The Quartet performs on a set of four Stradivarius instruments, dubbed the “Paganini Quartet.”  What will happen to these instruments after you retire? 

CG: The instruments will be returned to the Nippon Foundation and will then be lent to another quartet.

EP: As you begin to think a little more about the end, can you put into words the Quartet’s relationship with PCMS and Philadelphia?  Our audience is very much going to miss your annual concerts with PCMS.  Can you also tell us a little more about the plans for next season and beyond with each of the four members of the Tokyo?

CG: We first performed for PCMS in 1989 and would not hesitate to claim this as being one our favorite concert series, anywhere in the world. Though we have had our own fair share of personnel changes within the ensemble, Tony Checchia and Philip Maneval have been loyal supporters and great friends for 24 years. We always feel a strong rapport with the PCMS public, no matter how esoteric or demanding the repertoire might be, and this series seems to cultivate particularly strong artistic relationships with a wonderful cast of guest artists. We have been fortunate enough to join forces with wonderful musicians such as the Guarneri Quartet, Emanuel Ax, Michael Tree, Peter Wiley and Roberto Diaz. Some of our happiest musical memories are all thanks to PCMS and there's always an energy that emanates from the PCMS public–a distinctive blend of attentiveness, respect and passionate enthusiasm for the music. We will certainly miss you all!

Yes, there certainly will be life after the Tokyo Quartet! Kikuei and Kazu will remain very active as both players and teachers in the chamber music scene. Kikuei will join the faculty of Senzoku University in Tokyo and Kazu will do likewise at the Toho School. They will both participate in freelance projects, both here in the US and also abroad. In July, Martin and I will be moving to Los Angeles to join the faculty of the Colburn School where we will serve as co-directors of the string chamber music program. We will continue to play together often, and have plans to form a piano trio.

The Tokyo Quartet appears on Sunday, January 20th at 3 PM at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater and on Sunday, May 5th at the Independence Seaport Museum.  For tickets and information, visit the concert page or call the PCMS Box Office at 215.569.8080.