"I was pretty shy about it, but I
showed the score to my colleagues, and they said to me, ’Let’s
Violinist Ralph Evans, a member of the Fine Arts Quartet and sometime composer, is discussing his String Quartet No. 1, which he and his colleagues will perform as part of its weekend of Bargemusic concerts Nov. 22-25.
Evans - talking by phone with GO Brooklyn from Atlanta, a stop on the Quartet’s current U.S. tour - is typically modest about his first quartet, which was actually begun many years earlier by a then 13-year-old fledging composer.
"When I was younger, I was very interested in composing," Evans says. "When I was 13, I entered a competition and submitted two movements of what I hoped would become a much larger piece. They ended up as the second and third movements of this quartet, and both movements won the top prizes!" But even with such instant notoriety, Evans was far more adept at performing.
"I stopped composing after that," he admits. "But 29 years later, I took out my original sketches for the first movement of the quartet, and ended up writing it all out. Growing up in the heyday of serialism in the ’60s, I was very impressed with that type of music in an academic sort of way, but I never enjoyed listening to it too much. It was too dry and often boring. My challenge was to write something more accessible but that was also of intellectual interest, something tuneful but not shallow."
Premiered in 1995, Evans’ first quartet is about 12 minutes long; its spiky but tonal-based string writing provides a fresh-sounding introduction to the remainder of the Fine Arts Quartet’s second program (Nov. 23 and Nov. 25), which also includes the Hungarian composer Ernst Dohnanyi’s String Quartet No. 2 and Felix Mendelssohn’s B-flat Major String Quintet, the latter with guest violist Toby Hoffman, who also coordinated these concerts.
The Fine Arts Quartet’s other program (Nov. 22 and Nov. 24, also with violist Hoffman) consists of Mendelssohn’s other quintet (in A Major) and the only string quintet by a composer most people associate with long, often bombastic music: Austria’s Anton Bruckner. But Evans doesn’t bother to separate the Bruckner who wrote (his detractors might say overwrote) nine huge blocks of granite called his symphonies and the Bruckner who penned this mighty chamber work.
"Bruckner actually wrote very little chamber music," Evans admits. "He bloomed very late - his lone quartet is what you’d call a student work, even though he wrote it in his late 20s, and it’s almost classical-sounding, which isn’t usual for Bruckner. The quintet however, which we’re playing, is a masterpiece - a fantastic piece, very complicated, even symphonic in scope. And the slow movement is quite justly famous - it’s really beautiful."
Founded in 1946, the Fine Arts Quartet hasn’t seen many changes in its illustrious history - in fact, Evans is just its second first violinist, having replaced the original lead bower, Leonard Sorkin, in 1982. Even then, Evans isn’t the longest-standing member, an honor that belongs to the group’s cellist Wolfgang Laufer, who joined in the late 1970s. (Second violinist Efim Boico and violist Yuri Gandelsman complete the current lineup.)
Even in these economically squeezed times, particularly for the classical music world, the Fine Arts Quartet has been able to keep up a reasonably busy recording schedule, according to Evans.
"We just recorded the cycle of the six Mozart string quintets," the violinist says, which the group played for the first time on a recent visit to the Beijing Music Festival in China. "What makes this Mozart recording so interesting technically is that it’s one of the first to use the new medium, Sony’s Super Audio format. We’ll have to see what happens [in the fight between Super Audio and the rival format, DVD Audio]." The Fine Arts Quartet’s recording of Mozart’s String Quintets will soon be available on the Lyrinx label.
As with most musicians who come to Bargemusic, Evans can’t wait to perform in Brooklyn’s own jewel-like setting for chamber music. "I used to live in New York years ago, before joining the quartet," Evans says. "But I’ve never played Bargemusic before, and I’m really looking forward to it."
The Fine Arts Quartet performs Mendelssohn and Bruckner Nov. 22 and Nov. 24, and Evans, Dohnanyi and Mendelssohn Nov. 23 and Nov. 25 at Bargemusic at Fulton Ferry Landing. Thursday, Friday and Saturday concerts begin at 7:30 pm; Sundays begin at 4 pm. For tickets, call (718) 624-2083. Tickets are $30, $25 for seniors 65 and older and $15 for students. For information about each day’s program, go to the Web site at www.bargemusic.org.