String Quartets in the Bay Area
We have no idea when the first string quartet was performed in San Francisco. The city was founded in June of 1776, when Spanish soldiers established a fort overlooking the Golden Gate, and priests established a Mission, named for St. Francis of Assisi. Haydn wrote his first string quartets between 1755 and 1757, so it’s just possible that four of the early soldiers or mission fathers might have sat down together to play a string quartet for their own enjoyment. If they didn’t, then it’s very likely that some of the aristocratic early Spanish residents did have string quartets performed at their rancharias in the course of the next several decades. Certainly by the 1880s, after the discovery of gold and the establishment of great mansions on Nob Hill, string quartets would have been performed in those wealthy homes.
As for when the first public performance took place, we don't know that either, but we do know for certain that the newly organized San Francisco Symphony, led by Henry Hadley, gave its first concert on Dec. 8, 1911, and we know that its program included Haydn's Emperor String Quartet.
We also know that Mills College in Oakland established its Conservatory of Music in 1894 and that the Pro Arte String Quartet began an 8 year residency there in 1932. During this period, the Pro Arte performed American premieres of works by Milhaud and Berg (Lyric Suite) as well as quartets by Cowell, Stravinsky, Bartok, Harris and Copland.
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music was established in 1923, superceding an earlier school founded in 1917. The conservatory's first faculity string quartet, the California String Quartet was established in 1926. In 1985 the SFCM became the first music school in the US to offer a music degree program in chamber music. Starting in 2014, the SFCM will not only host an annual resident string quartet but will also sponsor a graduate student resident quartet to add depth to its chamber music program.
In recent times, the history of string quartets in the Bay Area has been strongly influenced by three string quartets: The Budapest String Quartet, the Kronos String Quartet, and the Alexander String Quartet, and by one very enthusiastic group made up of people who love chamber music.
The Budapest String Quartet was one of the most respected string quartet groups in the world during the first half of the Twentieth Century. It was founded, in Budapest, in 1917, and continued, with various changes of personnel until 1967. (It began as 3 Hungarians and a Dutchman and, in the end, consisted of four Russians.) The key thing, from our perspective, however, is the fact that in 1939 they became the resident string quartet at Mill College in Oakland, just as World War II began in Europe. The quartet decided to remain in the US and returned to Mill College for the next 15 years, assuring that Bay Area residents, and students, had access to some of the finest string quartet playing in the world during this formative period.
The Kronos String Quartet was founded in Seattle in 1973, but moved to San Francisco in 1978. Kronos is perhaps the foremost advocate of contemporary string quartet music, and is known throughout the world for commissioning new string quartet compositions. (Many string quartets play two pieces by classic or romantic composers and then add one contemporary piece. The Kronos, on the other hand, play contemporary pieces, and will only occasionally add a classic piece.) Early on, the Kronos established a tradition of commissioning new music from contemporary composers like Philip Glass and John Adams. Indeed, their founder, David Harrington, claims he initially established the quartet in order to play Robert Crumb’s Viet Nam protest piece, Black Angels. The Kronos often blends its own playing with computer synthesized music and often provides a light show when it performs. In essence, the Kronos has placed San Francisco at the forefront of contemporary string quartet music, and has seemingly established a Bay Area audience for contemporary string quartet music. Today, many new quartets in the Bay Area follow the tradition established by Kronos, commissioning and premiering new quartet music.
The third group that has done much to influence the string quartet culture in San Francisco is the Alexander String Quartet, in combination with the musicologist, Robert Greenberg. The Alexander quartet began in New York in 1981. It was the first American quartet to win the London (Wigmore) International String Quartet Competition in 1985, (They won both the audience and the jury prizes.) The quartet moved to San Francisco in 1989, where it initially became the resident quartet of both San Francisco State University and then the resident quartet of the San Francisco Performances organization. In 1994 the Alexander teamed with a local composer and musicologist, Robert Greenberg, and with San Francisco Performances to present what has become an ongoing series of extended programs focused on specific string quartet composers. They have done noteworthy seasons on Beethoven's String Quartets, on Bartok's quartets and on Shostakovich's quartets. The current season, in San Francisco, for example, features the Alexander and Greenberg discussing and playing Mozart’s string quartets. In the course of four or five Saturday mornings, spread throughout the Spring, for the next two years, the team will entertain and educate an audience about Mozart’s String Quartets. Each session typically begins with Greenberg lecturing on Mozart and his quartets. As specific quartets are discussed, key points are illustrated by the Alexander quartet. Then the Alexander concludes the program by playing an entire quartet. This delightful educational experience has been underway for many years, as Greenberg and the Alexander have worked their way through the quartets of Beethoven, Bartok, Brahms, Shostakovich, Britten, and others. Bay Area string quartet audiences are much more sophisticated about the string quartet literature as a direct result of these wonderful programs which are usually presented first in San Francisco and then repeated in Berkeley.
In addition to these quartets -- great musicians must have an audience afterall -- San Francisco is lucky to have a group of dedicated chamber music enthusiasts, who have manifested their love of chamber music by creating the San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music (SFFCM). The SFFCM was initially established in 1998 by Jane Roos Le Roux, Jane Galante, and Barbara Barclay. Also present at that first meeting were Judith Anderson, Ruth Felt, Patricia Taylor Lee, Sue Meyer, Larissa Roesch, and Frances Varnhagen. The first fundraising event the SFFCM produced took place in March of 1999 – a concert by the Alexander String Quartet at the St. Francis Yacht club. 130 people came to hear the quartet and to help realize the founders’ goal – to create an endowed Quartet residency at San Francisco State University (SFSU). The Alexander Quartet still occupies that residency at SFSU and the SFFCM has gone on to become a major sponsor of the welcoming environment for string quartets in the Bay Area.
Today, the SFFCM sponsors presentations, including four free concert series: Chamber Music at the Legion of Honor, Chamber Music at the Presidio Officers' Club, which offers concerts each Friday during the Spring and Fall. They also co-sponsor a chamber music series that focuses on new music in conjunction with the New Music Center in San Francisco. And, in the fall they also sponsor SFMusic Day, another free event, that showcases a variety of different chamber music presentations over the course of a weekend. In 2015, for example, SFMusic Day was held in October at Herbst auditorium in San Francisco. The diverse program will include several string quartet groups.
At the same time, SFFCM plays two other roles. First it provides or manages grants to local music groups. In 2013, for example, it provided grants that totaled around $340,000 to 124 different projects. Second, it operates a Fiscal Sponsor Program, initially conceived of by Thomas Driscoll, a lawyer on the SFFCM board. In essence, the Fiscal Sponsor Program provides a legal, non-profit “home” for beginning groups so that they can receive tax deductible donations and apply for grants without having to go through the costly process of becoming non-profit corporations. At the same time, it mentors more established groups in the legal and business problems involved in setting up their own non-profit corporations so that they will have a sound legal and financial base. At the moment SFFCM provides mentoring services to 83 ensembles in the Bay Area. The SFFCM was given the Chamber Music America’s prestigious CMAcclaim Award in 2010 in recognition of its extraordinary contribution to chamber music in the San Francisco Bay Area.
The group has an executive director, Dominique Pelletey, and an active board that works to raise and disburse money for its activities. They hold an annual gathering of the membership. For more information, please check www.sffcm.org
In addition to the SFFCM, a growing number of other organizations work to sponsor or present string quartets in the Bay Area, and a growing number of very good string quartets are available, presenting programs that include a lively mix of classic, romantic, modern and contemporary work. Whatever may be the case, worldwide, this is certainly a golden age for string quartets in Bay Area.
In a nutshell, the San Francisco Bay Area, has a sophisticated audience with a lively interest in string quartets that has grown steadily since World War II, and a significant subset of that audience is especially friendly to new string quartet composers.
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