In honour of their 30th anniversary, the Lafayette String Quartet performs Shostakovich’s complete string quartet cycle.
NOW ENTERING THEIR FOURTH DECADE of performing together as the original members, the four musicians comprising the internationally-acclaimed Lafayette String Quartet are an impressive embodiment of the word “ensemble”—the Latin components of which mean “at the same time.” Noting an intake of breath, tensing of a lip or shifting of weight, these women can instantaneously “read” each other musically as they explore different avenues of interpretation of the repertoire, falling effortlessly into real-time synchronicity—in a fraction of a second—even during performance.
The story of how these women travelled through decades together to achieve such continuity, depth and success as worldwide performers and artists-in-residence at UVic is rife with mystical coincidences and convergences, just as any “coming together” should be.
It’s one thing to “come together,” and quite another to stay together, especially for 30 years. The initial heady rush of “Wow, isn’t this great? We get along so well!” can, over time, insidiously devolve into discord, with unspoken assumptions, seething resentments and unresolved conflicts—leading to nuclear explosions that make reassembly of the whole impossible. String quartets are no different really from rock bands, business partnerships, and marriages when it comes to the basic facts of human relationships, their limitations and vulnerabilities.
So what’s the secret of the Lafayette String Quartet (LSQ)? How did these women end up celebrating 30 years of playing together professionally as a quartet? Violinist and LSQ member Sharon Stanis credits a fortuitous connection to a cherished mentor when the four were graduate students studying music at Indiana University—a connection which created a foundation of meaning, structure and purpose for the group’s working relationship, making it more sustainable, perhaps, than those who have tried to rely on talent or chemistry alone. “I would not be having this conversation if we hadn’t met our mentor,” Stanis insists.
Stanis, for her part, didn’t dream of ending up in a string quartet. She grew up in Ohio, and held a vision from childhood of someday playing for the Cleveland Symphony. She had fits and starts of a career that might have gone that way, but in the end, fate seemed to dictate a different path, one she doesn’t regret, but didn’t envision. “Our mentor changed the course of my life,” she says.
Rostislav Dubinsky was first violinist and an original member of the USSR-based Borodin quartet. He was also a friend and professional associate of composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975). Recordings of Shostakovich’s string quartets by the Borodin are hailed as some of the greatest ever made.
Dubinsky and his pianist wife eventually immigrated to the US, and he ended up as a faculty member at Indiana University, where, in the early 1980s, he first noticed the potential of the young women as an ensemble and hounded them into forming a foursome. “He is the father of our quartet,” says Stanis. “We sat down with him when he was 60 years old, and played through the third and eighth Shostakovich string quartets. We got on a plane and performed at Sarah Lawrence College. When we graduated, he said, ‘Girls, whatever you do, keep the quartet, keep the quartet.’”
In the years after they left Indiana University, luck would have it that they all ended up in Detroit, not playing as a quartet, but all with gigs. Still, they couldn’t shake Dubinsky’s insistence that they heed his advice and accept their destiny of being a quartet.
In 1986, the Lafayette was formed, and the four women would drive from Detroit to Indiana to “drink from the well” and work with Dubinsky. After all these years, Stanis says, “It still is a high, that synergy, it’s like an out-of-body experience sometimes, where you feel like you’re flying, it’s just a great feeling. That feeling was definitely a draw in our younger years, because it wasn’t always perfect. But that feeling of being a part of a whole, contributing, emotionally engaged, there’s nothing like that.”
The string quartet repertoire, Stanis says, ended up being more inspiring than she ever expected, and the pull to continue to play it was another aspect of their bond. “We stayed together because of the music; [string quartets are] some of the most beautiful chamber music in the world, written to express the composer’s most intimate feelings. To have one [person on each] part, and have that responsibility within only a quartet of players is pretty special.”
Now at UVic, surrounded by music scholars, and having access to that kind of support and inspiration, with the time to delve more deeply into repertoire has been inspiring as well. “I have to also give credit to UVic,” Stanis continues. “In 1991, they hired us to be quartet-in-residence, which has been a very important thread” in the Lafayette’s sustainability. It’s what made it possible for them to be able to perform the complete Shostakovich cycle. “[UVic] has allowed us to take on these kinds of research-based projects—delving into 15 quartets of one composer is a great opportunity.”
The series of five concerts the Lafayette will perform in February at the intimate Philip T Young Recital Hall is a “journey,” Stanis explains. “Our scholars will be giving the context and educating the audience about what they are hearing” as each of the 15 string quartets Dmitri Shostakovich wrote over his lifetime—during the oppressive and restrictive Soviet era—are played in chronological order.
Shostakovich, Stanis says, “was such a clever guy. He was able to write music that was maybe thinly veiled or veiled enough that it seemed on the surface to be conforming to what the Soviets wanted, but in reality, there was a sense of expressing himself. There is a slow movement in the 6th quartet—there’s a certain place in the music—if you’re into it about a minute—it’s as if you’ve been mourning the death of someone, and then a ray of light comes through and your life is transformed.”
When I reference a quote from Shostakovich where he laments the limitations of Soviet party constriction, saying he “would have displayed more brilliance, used more sarcasm; I could have revealed my ideas openly instead of having to resort to camouflage,” Stanis replies, “What he did give is some of the most poignant, tender, spiritual and transcendent music—and he was able to rebel without being seen as a rebel. That’s a very powerful thing.”
Perhaps in humorous reference to his own experience of being “captive” both in the USSR and in a string quartet, Dubinsky wrote to his “girls” in 1996: “Dear Lafayettes, my sincere condolences on your first 10 years of hard labour in a string quartet. May Almighty God give you strength and wisdom to keep the Quartet as long as you live.” Dubinsky died in 1997. One can only imagine his delight if he could hear their ensemble now.
The Lafayette String Quartet (violinists Ann Elliott-Goldschmid and Sharon Stanis, violist Joanna Hood, and cellist Pamela Highbaugh Aloni) performs the complete Shostakovich Cycle of 15 String Quartets. February 3–9 at the Philip T Young Recital Hall, University of Victoria, with eminent scholars Michelle Assay, David Fanning, Judy Kuhn and Pat McCreless. Tickets at the email@example.com or 250-721-8480. $25 for each concert or $100 for a 5-concert pass.
Mollie Kaye gets her own experience of “ensemble” singing with The Millies, a Victoria-based vocal trio.
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