String Quartet fills the house and brings it down

An old Cold War gag: "One Russian is an anarchist, two Russians is a chess game, three Russians is conspiracy, and four Russians is the Budapest String Quartet."...

An old Cold War gag: "One Russian is an anarchist, two Russians is a chess game, three Russians is conspiracy, and four Russians is the Budapest String Quartet."

For me, the string quartet is the 18th century's greatest invention. We own lots of string quartet CDs, and attend string quartet concerts whenever we can. Among others, we've seen the Guarneri Quartet in Minneapolis when Orchestra Hall was new, the Lark Quartet in Bemidji when they were new and the Lindsay String Quartet in Wigmore Hall in London in either '83 or '85. Unfortunately, we never heard the Budapest String Quartet live.

Last December, classical Minnesota Public Radio began talking about the Parker Quartet, a young quartet in their second year as artists in residence of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. Among other locales, they were to play in BSU's Thompson Recital Hall Jan. 21. By Jan. 7, I'd heard enough MPR Parker Quartet promos that I hurried to Bangsberg Hall to buy tickets before they sold out.

When I came home, Elaine said Kristi Booth, MPR's regional network director, had phoned. Apparently ticket sales were not going as briskly as she'd hoped. After my nap, there was an e-mail from Kristi saying that she'd heard that I had "a nice e-mail list of music lovers," and that "we need to fill the seats" for this "amazing night of music." Also, that classical MPR host Steve Staruch would be on board to introduce the quartet. Would I help spread the word?

Between the lines, I detected anxiety lest a poor turnout would make it harder to attract similar visits another time. I blind-copied an announcement to our e-mail music list (50-plus members, now including Kristi), but wondered what good it might do, thinking most of its locals would attend anyway, and not expecting those from Palo Alto and other places to make the trip. I also e-mailed MPR requesting a selection for Steve Staruch to play on "Friday Favorites," to whet people's appetites, and announced the event at church on two Sundays.


Patt Rall wrote a special piece for the Pioneer, including a quote from the world's foremost authority who doesn't read music. Perhaps at Kristi's urging, MPR promos added a line, "Tickets will also be available at the door." Also, the Parker Quartet appeared live on MPR's "Performance Today." and MPR put an ad in The Pioneer.

We cannot tell how much the extra effort helped. Some said Bemidji audiences typically buy tickets late. We got to Bangsberg early to get the best seats in the house for small ensembles: middle of the front row. Those seats were already occupied by the youngest players of the Bemidji Symphony Orchestra, Sarah and Sadie Hamrin and their friends. We sat next to them. The house was packed; when I went out to check with music professor Del Lyren, he said they were just selling their last three tickets. Kristi was happy.

During intermission, I asked Steve Staruch to get a show of hands of those who drove more than 30 miles to attend the concert. He estimated 10 percent, suggesting MPR's promos worked. Somebody, maybe Patt Rall, told me someone else had sent her my e-mail, suggesting that had a snowball effect. Others thanked me for letting them know; maybe our e-mail accounted for several attendees.

The concert comprised Haydn's Quartet Op. 20(2) in C, Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet and his Concertino for String Quartet, and, after intermission, Ravel's String Quartet in F and an encore, the scherzo from Mendelssohn's String Quartet Op. 13(2) in A. Steve Staruch emceed a question period followed the encore, and the quartet stayed afterward for conversation in the lobby.

We own CDs of the Haydn and the Mendelssohn, but had not played either for ages. We also own the Ravel - his only string quartet - and played an LP of it for decades before that. The Stravinsky selections - new to us - were a good intro to the versatility of the genre, and also to the skill of this group. Their renditions of the familiar Ravel and Mendelssohn were as good as we've ever heard.

The overall performance was incredible. Every person I've talked to, including many more expert than I, was blown away. These four dynamic young musicians - Daniel Chong and Karen Kim, violins, Kee-Hyun Kim, cello, and Jessica Bodner, viola - are as good a team as I've ever seen. Their playing and coordination are expressive and flawless, and they are unaffected: there is no posing for the audience. There is frequent eye-contact among them, but it's all about making the music. Brava! and Bravo!

Evan Hazard, a retired BSU biology professor, also writes Northland Stargazing the fourth Friday of each month.

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