Virtually everyone writing about the Tokyo String Quartet's final tour this year is drawn to the word "bittersweet," and with good reason: After 43 seasons, the group gave its farewell Boston concert last week at WGBH. The quartet is rising to the emotional occasion by playing with heightened finesse and dimension, sounding better than ever.
For all its "bittersweetness," the evening was a kind of high-tech house concert, as our carefully hung microphones and tyrannical digital clocks pulsed away in the gleaming beauty of the Fraser Performance Studio. From our state-of-the-art control room, we captured Tokyo's Boston farewell for our local audience and sent it out to the world in a live webcast.
All of which meant interrupting the quartet's rehearsal for soundchecks and tweaks in microphone placement — not to mention an extended, videotaped interview. But the quartet's soft-spoken kindness never flagged. The musicians were relaxed yet deeply focused, and full of good humor. You'd think they'd be so wrapped up in the intensity of this last exhaustive tour that they might not have quite digested the finality of it all. But I think they have. They seem to embrace every concert with the special freedom that can only come at a time like this.
Violist Kazuhide Isomura, the only remaining original member, is a joy. He speaks with a reverent hush that explodes unexpectedly into laughter. "Don't feel sad for me," he said when I asked what comes next. "No more touring ... I am a free man!"
Second violinist Kikuei Ikeda is also quick to smile. He's been with the group since 1974 and loves to tell the fascinating story of the quartet's switch from Japanese-language rehearsals to English. The switch came with the arrival, in 1981, of Canadian violinist Peter Oundjian, and it marked a profound moment in the quartet's life.
"We were stuck in the frame of the 'Tokyo Quartet.' They all come from the same school; they all studied with the same teacher; and they all think as one," Ikeda said. "And, you know, that's very nice, but in a true world, we were very different. And we didn't actually acknowledge that. But in '81, when Peter joined, we kind of liberated ourselves — and were free to speak. And, more importantly, I think we were equal to each other. And that was a big change."
This concert, from April 3, had a beginning, middle and end, like all good stories. The opening Haydn quartet was as rich and playful as any performance I'd heard, with the stop-on-a-dime thrill that Haydn demands. Bartok's concise third quartet, with its tremendously evocative rhythms, thickened and darkened the plot.
But it was in the final piece, Ravel's String Quartet, that I could feel the audience sensing that the final chord of this luminous work would be the last the Tokyo would ever play in Boston. When it came, it hit deeply. The story closed with a feeling far beyond bittersweet. We all felt so tremendously grateful.
(Special thanks to the Celebrity Series of Boston, presenters of 21 Tokyo String Quartet concerts from 1974-2013.)
- Josef Haydn: String Quartet in G major, Op. 77, No. 1
- Bela Bartok: String Quartet No. 3
- Maurice Ravel: String Quartet in F major
- Martin Beaver, violin
- Kikuei Ikeda, violin
- Kazuhide Isomura, viola
- Clive Greensmith, cello