The following interview by Jerry Dubins is from the November/December 2018 issue of Fanfare Magazine and used with permission. 

Two interviews and literally dozens of reviews later, the Alexander String Quartet, which has graced us with so many outstanding recordings of much mainstream string quartet literature, has joined forces with the dynamic young pianist Joyce Yang to bring us its latest release, a recording of Mozart’s two piano quartets. To do so, of course, second violinist of the ensemble, Frederick Lifsitz, had to sit this one out, leaving first violinist Zakarias Grafilo, violist Paul Yarbrough, and cellist Sandy Wilson, which explains the above “Music Minus One, Plus One” headline.

So, Joyce, let me start with you. How did you come to hook up with these guys?

Joyce: Our wonderful friend Sid Singer was our matchmaker. He heard us play separately and thought we would make a good team. On our first “date,” we played Schumann’s Piano Quintet (which is on our first disc) and within moments, I knew I found a partner—or rather, four partners—for life! There was an instant familiarity, like we had done this a thousand times before! We could immediately finish each other’s musical sentences and understand each other’s temperaments. There was very little verbal explanation necessary.

Sticking with you, Joyce for the moment, I understand you were nominated for a Grammy last year for your work with Augustin Hadelich. Coincidentally, a little over a year ago, I reviewed a fantastic recording by Hadelich of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto and Lalo Symphonie espagnole. I had special praise for Hadelich daring to be different in the Tchaikovsky, giving us a new perspective on an old warhorse and an electrifying performance. I also got to review your collaboration with the Alexander String Quartet in the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets, performances I described as “breathtaking.” I’m guessing that your Grammy-nominated disc with Hadelich was the Schumann/Previn/Kurtág release on Avie, which I personally haven’t heard, but it received an urgent recommendation from another of the magazine’s contributors, Robert Maxham, in 40:5. Tell me about the Grammy-nominated album.

Joyce: Augustin and I have been performing together for about five years now. That disc has the repertoire that marks important points in our journey together: György Kurtág and Franck were on our very first duo recital. It was rather an unexpected event, where I filled in for his ailing pianist with just three days’ notice. The Franck Sonata was a piece we had been playing with other chamber partners. Previn’s Tango Song and Dance has been a pillar in our tango project, and the Schumann Sonata has been one of the favorites in our repertoire. We are such big Schumann fans and have been through many chapters. Our interpretation of the sonata has changed many times over the years. We poured everything we had into making this recital disc. It was difficult deciding which rendition we would put out as our ultimate rendition. After rigorous discussions, we realized that we wanted to capture the spirit of brave chamber music and keep the moments that left us feeling vulnerable and inspired, even if it wasn’t “perfect.” So, we ended up choosing takes that have the spirit of a live performance, with lots of spontaneous moments that never showed up in rehearsals necessarily, over ones that sounded more refined.

Zak, Sandy tells me that you and Paul have more to share about how you and Joyce connected.

Zak: We had first heard about Joyce through our mutual friend Sid Singer, who presents his own house concert series in Mamaroneck, New York. Every time we saw Sid, he kept telling us, “You guys really should play with Joyce. She’s a fantastic pianist and an amazing chamber musician!”

Boy, was he right! After several months of planning and scheduling, we finally had a chance to sit down with Joyce and read through the Schumann Piano Quintet. Right from the first chords of the quintet, we were blown away by Joyce’s virtuosity, energy, and sheer power, while at the same time playing with such sensitivity and awareness towards the group’s overall balance. Personally, I was surprised by the instant connection that the two of us had right from the get-go. We somehow knew how to anticipate and catch each other in ways that I had never experienced with any other pianist.

The best way to describe that first reading session is, simply, easy. We didn’t talk much that day, just played. We read the entire quintet straight through and afterwards, looked at each other and said, “Wow, that was fun! Let’s play something else!”

The five of us have obviously performed (and recorded) together several times since that initial reading session, but every single time we sit down with Joyce, we play with the same freshness as that first meeting. Her infectious energy always puts us in a great mood, and when we perform together, that collective energy can result in very exciting performances.

Paul: I remember the first rehearsal for the Schumann Piano Quintet performance that was the ASQ’s introduction to Joyce. Following a few polite formalities, we proceeded to dive into the quintet’s first movement. The music-making was instantly magical without the exchange of even a word, but I had to tear myself away quickly (nature calls, art waits). When I returned, the tentative politeness of a moment earlier had given way to an astonishing(!) degree of familiarity and irreverence. This lovely, innocent, young lady was out-wisecracking the ASQ! I couldn’t imagine how such a stark transformation had taken place in no time at all, but I knew from that instant—and the delicious remainder of the Schumann—that we’d begun a cherished collaboration.

Not to be accused of telling tales out of school, but I understand that the four of you have more than your share of fun making music together. I find that music lovers that have never had the opportunity to commingle with live musicians offstage tend to view performing artists as a very serious lot. But I can say from my own experience working with musicians that they can be some of the most wickedly funny people I’ve ever known. And it’s not a new phenomenon. In preparing a recent review of cello duets by Offenbach, I read that as a cellist in the Opéra-Comique Orchestra, he played practical jokes on his fellow musicians, like rigging some of their music stands to collapse mid-performance. So, make me laugh. Tell me about the fun you guys and gal have making music together.

Joyce: A chamber group could never survive a season without laughter! We have so much fun on and off the stage—I always look forward to the whole experience—not just what happens on stage.

Paul: Your question about quartet humor brings so many thoughts to mind. First, of course, is the difficulty of retelling most of the exchanges, not even for their being X-rated, but for their “you had to have been there” nature. The funniest things are often an outgrowth of a difficult or challenging circumstance we’ve had to endure. Without the laughter, there would only be the negative; with it, the experience is transformed into a fond recollection. One example comes to mind. I was driving on the last leg of a late-night mad dash from a Sunday afternoon concert in the NYC area to St. Lawrence University, nearly to the Canadian border. I was struggling mightily to keep my eyes open while there was snoring coming from the other guys. Fred, sensing my desperation and probably also hoping to avoid plunging off an Adirondack mountainside, began to entertain me. He started doing a bit, “The 95-year-old second violinist,” owing not a little to Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Within minutes everyone was awake and chiming in, and suddenly I was having trouble keeping the eyes open for another reason: hysterical laughter! The rest of the drive and even the 2:00 am arrival weren’t so bad.

On another occasion, we had a very acrimonious pre-concert rehearsal for a performance in the gorgeous Pump Room at the Bath Festival in England. Back stage in these elegant surroundings the BBC producer, who clearly felt we could use some loosening up, told us a joke, “The three worst things about being an egg” (definitely not for a family publication!). We went onstage still chuckling and wondering what all the Angst had been about.

Paul, I know that you, along with Sandy, founded the Alexander String Quartet back in 1981—hard to believe, you’ve been going strong now for going on 40 years!—but you are also a highly sensitive and articulate writer on music, and kind of the “philospher” of the group who keeps things centered. You speak eloquently of Mozart in your introductory album note. Could you elaborate further on Mozart’s chamber works in general and the two piano quartets in particular?

Paul: I once heard someone explaining his lack of enthusiasm for Mozart’s music by saying “I always know what he’ll do next.” My musician friends and I responded incredulously, “That’s funny, because we NEVER know what he’ll do next!” The perfection of Mozart’s use of form and style often can create the illusion of obviousness in retrospect. The most wildly imaginative passage elicits the reaction of “Of course!” when no other person could have thought of something so perfect in a thousand years!

The new album of Mozart’s piano quartets is titled Apotheosis, Volume 2. I understand that Volume 1 is to be released later this year. What is on it, and what is the significance of the “Apotheosis” label? Paul, or anyone else who cares to jump in here.

Paul: Volume 1 will be the last four string quartets. We try to give our releases titles. They’re not always easy to come up with, but this one just came to mind as I was contemplating the astonishing accomplishment that Mozart’s late chamber music, taken as a whole, represents.

Zak: The overarching “Apotheosis” title, which was Paul’s concept, is all about Mozart’s last chamber works, primarily focusing on string instrument collaborations. Volume 1 will feature the last four string quartets including the “Hoffmeister” Quartet, K 499, and the three “Prussian” Quartets, K 575, 589, and 590. The current release, Volume 2, features the two piano quartets with Joyce. Volume 3, the last release in this grouping, as we have conceived it, will include the quintets, comprising the late Viola Quintets and the Clarinet Quintet.

Sandy: We have rerecorded Volume 1 (The Final Quartets of Mozart) in our familiar and beloved St. Stephen’s Church in Belvedere. We recorded it in January and February of 2017, this second time in an essentially live-performance setting, and although we are still dealing with the editing ourselves (what little there is of it), we aim to release it in 2019. We learned a great deal from our mis-step, which resulted in withdrawing the earlier effort. It was the first and only time we have ever held back a project of this magnitude, but close family and friends advised and successfully persuaded us that this was the right thing to do. In the search for efficiencies and a refreshing alternative effort, we had first experimented in recording in the fabulous Fantasy Studios (think Creedence Clearwater Revival). We worked with an exceptional engineer, extraordinarily accommodating staff, and with a very good friend who produced it. Sadly, the end product just sounded unsatisfying, not at all like the ASQ sound we recognize as our own and something that we couldn’t get comfortable with. The process itself was uncomfortable in real time and as much as we wanted the experiment to work, there was no chance of reconciling everyone’s effort and hard work with a product we could release. The only regret we have about ditching it is that we didn’t do it sooner.

Well, onward and upward. With the disappointing but instructive process of listening so extensively to our initially unsuccessful efforts behind us, we felt much better prepared to record the string quartets live. We took advantage of the opportunity to film many of our complete takes of the final string quartets too, so that when the time comes, we will have that added visual component to share with our followers as well.

The other project that we were recording last month is a forthcoming release (October 2018) of the three Mahler song cycles transcribed for string quartet by our first violinist, Zak Grafilo. They’re wonderfully effective, and our singer is Kindra Scharich, a young and exceptionally accomplished young mezzo-soprano based in San Francisco with a burgeoning international career.

We spent a lot of time with Peter Grunberg reviewing and adjusting the arrangements which we’ve been performing out and about for two years or more, in an effort to get them even closer to the orchestrations than Zak had originally managed. He’s always tweaking them anyway, but in the recording process, we went so far as to add a little scordatura in the first violin and cello parts that, while very effective details, can be avoided in live performances for the sake of practicality with negligible musical detriment. It was in the midst of these Mahler recordings that, in order to spell our singer, we recorded Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet in a day. Full disclosure, by the way: Zak also arranged the Four Last Songs (transposed down a third) and the Wesendonck Lieder too. And you can hear some of his earlier transcriptions for the ASQ, including the Brahms A-Major Intermezzo, op. 118/2, and the D-Major Ballade, op. 10/2, not to mention several of the Shostakovich op. 87 Preludes and Fugues, on some of our earlier Foghorn Classics releases.

Anyway, there you have it. Four releases from Foghorn in 2018 and 2019.

I think it would be only fair and appropriate at this point to hear from the Alexander Quartet’s “silent” member in the recording of Mozart’s piano quartets, Fred Lifsitz, who ordinarily plays second violin, which, of course, there is no call for in a piano quartet. How did you feel about sitting on the sidelines for this one?

Fred: One of the things we’ve often done in performances is for Zak and me to switch off for works that involve just one violin. I usually play Mozart’s G-Minor Piano Quartet and, from time to time, the Brahms piano quartets. It gives Zak a bit of breathing room after playing in any given season as many as 40 works as first violin, in addition to a series of recitals and Bach performances. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to keep my profile sharp in a different role than the second violin parts do—not that I don’t treasure my role as second violinist in this great ensemble with a fabulous first violin colleague like Zak!

But for these Mozart recordings, I went to Zak to talk about how we should approach the overall recording project, and it was my instinct that for practical as well as personal reasons, we should have one violinist play both pieces and, if he was willing, it should be him. He wanted to make certain that I really did not mind, and I assured him I felt it would be great either way, but that I just felt he would enjoy doing them both, and that the set-up and logistics of recording with one violinist, on a tight schedule, too, would serve our project better. So, he accepted, and as a member of the quartet for over three decades, I’m thrilled with the results. It’s just a pleasure to hear him and the others play in such a heavenly unified and powerful way. Joyce is like a permanent member of the ASQ ensemble family.

I’m looking forward to the finished recording of the Mahler songs, which I played in the orchestral format in the mid-1980s back in Boston; and through Zak’s extraordinary rendering of the instrumental parts into the string quartet format, we are now able to perform and experience the music with such great clarity, sonority, and transparency. It’s been a gift. And Zak has given each instrumental part great solos and plenty of weaving lines.

It’s a special treat to have the record producer available to participate in an interview along with the musicians, but he’s here to talk to us as well. There’s a very close and special relationship between violist David Samuel; his wife, violinist Yuri Cho; and the Alexander String Quartet. They were members of the Afiara Quartet, which, at the time, was the Morrison Fellowship String Quartet in Residence at San Francisco State University. Readers may recall that it was the Afiara Quartet that joined forces with the Alexander Quartet to record Mendelssohn’s Octet, a performance I called “stunning” in 33:6.

So, David, I understand that Zak produced a recording for the Afiara Quartet in Banff of two of Beethoven’s middle quartets (opp. 59/1 and 95), and one of his late quartets (op. 131), and it was that experience which convinced Zak you were the right guy to produce this new Mozart recording for the Alexander minus one plus Joyce Yang. Sandy shared with me that it was quite a venture, one involving your traveling from New Zealand where you now live to work on the project. Details, please.

David: I was absolutely thrilled and honored to have been asked by the Alexander Quartet to produce this record for them. Indeed, the tables were turned somewhat when we recorded the Beethoven quartets at the Banff Centre with Zak as our producer back in 2012. For us it was important that our producer be someone we knew, felt comfortable with, and that we trusted to maintain our artistic goals and standards both during the recording process and post-production. My experience with editing actually came years before that when, in 2008, we recorded the Mendelssohn/Schubert disc to which you referred. While we had a producer for the recording phase itself, the post-production editing had to be completed by Zak and myself. We worked together to edit all three works on that disc, and it was during that project that I developed, or perhaps discovered, a real interest and fascination for the process.

So, when the Alexanders called to invite me to produce a recording with them and Joyce Yang, I jumped at the opportunity. There was only one small wrinkle in that I live in Auckland, New Zealand, playing full-time as associate principal viola in the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra and teaching viola at the University of Auckland, so we had some logistics to sort out, but I managed to find enough time in the schedule to make it work.

When you said Auckland, it reminded me of the story—actually true, I believe—of the man at the Los Angeles airport who had a bit too much to drink while waiting for his flight to Oakland. After two hours in the air, when the plane showed no sign of landing, the man, still a bit tipsy, asked the airline attendant why it was taking so long to fly from Los Angeles to Oakland, whereupon she gave him the bad news: “Sir, this plane is going to Auckland.” This does prompt me to ask you, though, how you’ve managed producing amidst your full-time orchestral and teaching jobs, and also to ask you about how you first met Joyce and her husband when she was on tour in New Zealand.

David: That’s a funny story and one that I’d not heard before. I wonder how he spent his time in New Zealand!

Arranging time to accommodate listening and editing wasn’t so difficult. I had kept good notes during the recording sessions themselves, and so I had a clear idea of how I would use the takes and structure each movement. I set aside time each week to put the edits together and found it to be invigorating and enjoyable. After all, there are far worse things one can do than listening to hours of Mozart’s chamber music.

It was a fortunate coincidence that Joyce and her husband Richard were both going to be coming to New Zealand a few months later. Joyce was playing a Rachmaninoff concerto with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, and after the final concert in Auckland, they planned a short vacation, during which time we were able to meet up and have a few meals and drinks together. While it’s somewhat of a cliché to say that the music world is incredibly small, it remains absolutely true.

Having heard and reviewed the recording, I can say that it’s quite an achievement, one of which you can be very proud, and with which the players can be very pleased. One final question: What other plans does the Alexander Quartet have in place with Joyce? I understand you’ll be premiering a new piano quintet commission from Samuel Carl Adams.

Zak: Yes, first performances will begin in February 2019, including in Tucson, San Francisco, Seattle, the Mondavi Center at UC Davis, Soka University, Dallas, and elsewhere.

What else might be on the short and/or long-term agendas? Dvořák’s A-Major Piano Quintet, perhaps?

Zak: As Sandy mentioned earlier, we just recorded the “American” Quartet last month, and that is intended to pair with Dvořák’s A-Major Piano Quintet. We were having so much fun last year when we were recording these Mozart piano quartets with Joyce that we just kept going and captured the Dvořák Quintet at the same time. It was so festive and she was able to spend a precious couple of weeks with us in San Francisco with her husband (a fabulous bassist) too, so it seemed like the right way to celebrate our friendship and collaboration. We didn’t want to delay sharing the recording any longer than necessary so, since it’s now safely in the can, combined with the newly recorded “American” Quartet, we anticipate an all-Dvořák release in Spring 2019.

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