The Brentano String Quartet would like to have a meaningful talk about relationships. Specifically, the relationship a pianist must have with the players in a quartet to have a successful chamber music performance.
“The quartet and the pianist enter a world together in a quintet. And, in order to have a meaningful conversation there, it takes a special type of listening that is potentially quite different from what you might do in a recital or a concerto,” said Mark Steinberg, a violinist in the ensemble.
As in any relationship, there is give and take.
“The pianist has to find the kind of color and sound in the piano that allows it to sonically interact with a string quartet,” he said. “Not every pianist can bring something out of the piano that makes sense with the strings so that they can converse. We have to adjust too, of course. But it has to all make sense for these instruments to talk to one another. If someone just sits down and bangs away, it’s not going to work.”
The dozen semifinalists at the Cliburn, will be challenged to find a common mode of communication with four string players they have hardly met. This round of the competition, which starts this afternoon, requires each of them to choose among quintets by Brahms, Dvorak, Franck and Schumann for a performance with the string quartet.
Just as the concertos in the final round test the pianists’ abilities when working with an orchestra, the quintet performance allows the judges and audience to see the competitors exhibit a different set of skills. It is one of the ways to determine if these accomplished soloists — any of whom could be awarded a concert career launch if they win — can work and play well with others.
“Chamber music is about having the same aim. You see how the players connect together,” said Cliburn president and CEO Jacques Marquis.
The Brentano Quartet — an American ensemble formed in 1992 that takes its name from Antonie Brentano, the woman believed to be Beethoven’s famous “immortal beloved” — is making its Cliburn Competition debut.
Its members are Steinberg and Serena Canin on violin, Misha Amory on viola and Nina Lee on cello. The group has been the string quartet in residence at Princeton University since 1999.
“It is a challenge for us, but it is exciting,” Steinberg said in a phone interview from the prestigious Spoleto Festival in South Carolina, where the Brentano was performing for the first time. “That is the thing that I think is wonderful about chamber music. It’s just like life. It is about relationships. And there is no relationship that means anything that is only one thing all the time. From moment to moment, the relationships change. It’s constantly shifting. It demands a high degree of spontaneity and flexibility from us. We have to be on our toes.”
Before the performances, the quartet will get 90 minutes of rehearsal time with each competitor.
“An hour and a half is a very short amount of time to rehearse with someone,” Steinberg said, but quickly added that the group can provide meaningful support to the pianists.
“I think we’re potentially in a nurturing situation to help these pianists who are under an enormous amount of pressure,” he said.
“I’m hoping we can bring them into a place where they will find it to be a joy to be on stage together, and we can maybe forget about the fact that is about a competition.”