LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)


Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The chamber revolution

By Norman Lebrecht / May 2, 2001

ARE my eyes deceiving me, or is this a string quartet topping the US classical charts? Hmm, depends on whom you believe. The instruments - two violins, cello, viola - may be the same as Haydn's, but the players are four near-naked girls, gyrating to an amplified backing track.

Bond, as the band are called, have been barred from the UK charts as inadequately classical. On the other hand, they have been booked to curtain-raise the Classical Brits awards. Make of that muddle what you will, in an industry that has lost the confidence to tell high art from low, good art from bad, real art from clone. The Bond girls are not bad players. They are simply living in a bad time for practising the intimate, introspective art of the string quartet.

This epochal suspicion is bleakly confirmed by a recent Chamber Music America survey. Checking 12 full-time quartets of varied age, fame and experience, CMA found that median annual earnings range from $26,154 to $58,278 (£18,290 to £40,700) per player, before tax - which is scarcely enough to support a family. Apart from one big-name group that nets $1 million a year, most US quartets are scratching around for survival.

The managerial business that once organised community concerts in small towns across the continent has fallen apart. Schools are no longer interested in educational presentations on dead, white European composers. Record labels have given up on Haydn quartets and gone for go-go dancers.

Most quartets in the survey said they were introducing extraneous instruments, ethnic music and occasional amplification in the hope of attracting an audience. Several were kept together only by the generosity of an Ivy League university, which granted them a long-term residency with few teaching duties, or none.

The picture in Britain is no prettier. Ten years ago, a decent string quartet could start a tour in Manchester and expect to play repeats in eight surrounding towns. Today, the top international ensembles seldom get more than three UK dates in a row. One well-known UK quartet earns close to £40,000 per player, but less than half of this comes from concerts. The rest is made up by a university residency and an innovative educational scheme.

In Germany, a good quartet can expect to earn DM6,000 (£2,000) a month per head. The best make DM10,000 and two world-famous ensembles manage comfortably on DM20,000.

But the opportunities are fading fast. In the past decade, the list of regular chamber music series in Western Europe has halved. Instead of giving 100 recitals a year, most German quartets now manage fewer than 40. Only in Italy, which lacks professional orchestras, does the demand for string quartets remain buoyant.

Much of the change is generational. Younger concert-hall managers are seeking cultural diversification and younger audiences are demanding something more than a seat-bound evening spent gawping at four penguin suits. The San Francisco-based Kronos quartet broke the dress code a decade ago with lots of leather and glitter, but designer gear is no longer enough to enliven an evening.

One of the brightest German quartets, the Artemis, have taken to engaging their audiences in dialogue about the pieces they are about to play - a social revolution in the formal setting of a chamber recital. Others hire a clarinettist to play jazz, a percussion kit to play pop and all manner of arrangers and synthesisers to break into the nebulous crossover mould that Bond have exploited. Several have followed Kronos into tourist-mode non-western collaborations, sometimes fruitfully.

It has never been harder since Haydn's time to make a living as a string quartet. But the challenge is yielding a gamut of fresh ideas as quartets struggle to reinvent their genre. One American baroque-instrument quartet takes its work into inner-city ghettos, playing peanut-butter-and-jam breakfast sessions for pre-school kids and parents. Several groups in the US and Europe have taken to the hills to found summer festivals, showing a surprising turn of entrepreneurial flair. String quartets, says one key player, "are now getting closer to the public than any other kind of classical artist".

This is an encouraging development, the more so when set against the seamy propositions of a decadent record industry. Even here, however, there are exceptions. The Belcea Quartet, barely graduated from the Royal College of Music, have been signed up by EMI on the strength of a stunning debut disc of Debussy, Ravel and Dutilleux - apparently without having to shed either garments or integrity. It will take courage and resourcefulness to maintain their progress, but the Belcea's breakthrough demonstrates that there is still room in a shrinking field for new quartets with open minds, nimble fingers and a willingness to play the long game.

19 October 2000: 'They're out of tune - not us' [interview with Bond]
11 March 2000: One for all and all four one [interview with the Brodsky Quartet]
9 May 1998: The grand old avant-garde [interview with David Harrington of Kronos]

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]




(c) La Scena Musicale 1999