Combining old and new, Esterhazy Quartet marks the big 4-0

Thursday, April 2, 2009 | 11:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:27 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 2, 2009
From left, Eva Szekely, Susan Jensen, Leslie Perna and Darry Dolezal of the Esterhazy Quartet practice in the Recital Hall in the Fine Arts Building at MU on March 20. The quartet, a university faculty string ensemble, will celebrate its 40th anniversary in April of this year.

COLUMBIA — The name Esterhazy has been associated with pushing the boundaries of classical music since the 18th century. The Esterhazy royalty of 18th-century Austria invited guests to the palace to listen to the compositions of newcomer Franz Josef Haydn.

Named for those European aristocrats, the Esterhazy String Quartet of MU also brings new music to the public. Drawing from composers such as Haydn and those working today, the quartet, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary, tries to keep its selection broad.

If you go

What: Esterhazy Quartet 40th anniversary concert

When: 8 p.m. Monday

Where: Whitmore Recital Hall, 135 Fine Arts Building, MU

Cost: A $5 donation is requested for the performance.


What: Lecture by Samuel Adler 
with Esterhazy Quartet

When: 3 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Whitmore Recital Hall

Cost: Free

Events are presented in part by support from the Grimshaw Endowed Fund, 
the College of Arts and Science and the MU School of Music.

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“Esterhazy stands for both the new and the old tradition of the string quartet,” said violinist Susan Jensen, who came to MU in 2007 and is the ensemble's newest member.

The other members are violinist Eva Szekely, violist Leslie Perna and cellist Darry Dolezal. Everyone in the resident quartet teaches in the MU School of Music.

Founded in 1968, the quartet is using the 2008-2009 concert season to mark its anniversary. The fall season opened with the same program Esterhazy played in its first year of residency at the university. A number of other events have touched on Esterhazy's milestone year, including a shining performance of Mendelssohn's "Octet in E-flat Major," performed with the Jasper String Quartet as part of the Odyssey Chamber Music Series in March.

On Monday evening, Esterhazy is presenting an anniversary recital with a program drawn from the past and the present.

"With the name Esterhazy, we, of course, have to play Haydn," Perna said.

The music drawn from the present is particularly special: Renowned composer Samuel Adler has written "String Quartet No. 9" for the Esterhazy Quartet, a follow-up to his visit to MU last year as part of his 80th birthday celebration. The quartet presented an all-Adler concert, and the composer came to the stage and talked with the audience about the works.

Jensen described the new piece as energetic, spirited, humorous and celebratory.

"The commission of Adler's ninth quartet is the highlight of our celebrations this year," Jensen said.

Adler will be at the performance and will give a lecture on Tuesday. In 2001, he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He has composed more than 400 works, which have been performed around the world. He is a professor emeritus at the Eastman School of Music, where he taught for three decades, and he continues to give workshops around the country.

“He’s retired, but he’s constantly on-the-go,” Jensen said.

The quartet has played new music for a long time, but now, Perna said, it's the focus. 

"We place importance on new music for the string quartet because we believe it promotes, challenges and progresses the vast possibilities unique to the string quartet," Jensen said.

In addition to playing the new works of composers such as Adler, Esterhazy has begun holding a weeklong residency at Berklee University in Boston, where the quartet plays and records new pieces composed by the students there. They also work with the students to help them better grasp what works, and what doesn't, for string quartet.

"The residency is important to us and the students we work with because it promotes the art form of the string quartet," Jensen said.

Esterhazy’s shift toward new music is part of a broader picture at the MU School of Music. In March, Jeanne and Rex Sinquefield gave $1 million to the school to expand its composition program. As part of the gift, a new ensemble will be created to play solely those pieces written by MU students.

“There is great new music coming out every day," Jeanne Sinquefield said when the gift was announced.

Esterhazy has been dedicated to the importance of new music since its founding,  Jensen said. Carleton Spotts, a former music professor who lives in Columbia and was honored at the Odyssey concert in March, founded the quartet and played cello for decades. The original members were violist Ulrich Dannemann and violinists Eugene Gratovich and Ruth Allen. From the beginning, the quartet has played around the United States and often in South America.

Members have changed over the years, but Perna said, “It’s been a remarkably steady set of players.” That, Jensen said, "is a big thing in a string quartet.”     

Jensen said Esterhazy has a collective dynamic. "I enjoy the back and forth (between musicians)," she said.

Perna agreed that combining talents is much better than playing alone. "You build up camaraderie with a group of people," she said. "It’s like a really good basketball team — it only comes with time.”

Violinist Szekely, who has been with the ensemble the longest, said Esterhazy's mission is to play the music of the day as well as to bring works of the masters to concert-goers.

“My hope is that the Esterhazy Quartet is going to be in residence at this university for years to come,” Szekely said. “We can hope for 40 more many times over."

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