Tune in for much more from the Brentano String Quartet

Posted 8:26am on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2012

The Brentano String Quartet, which will be performing at Bass Hall on Tuesday, may look like a typically classy classical music ensemble.

But don't let its buttoned-down, concert-hall demeanor fool you. It's not just another band of string theory proponents. These folks are movie stars of a sort.

The New York-based quartet, which will be returning in the spring to take part in the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, can be heard on the soundtrack of A Late Quartet, a new film in which a group of musicians battle their way through one of the late Beethoven string quartets (collectively considered to be the Everest of such playing). It stars Hollywood heavyweights Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken.

Both the film, which will be screened at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth (Nov. 30-Dec. 2), and the quartet have received good notices.

The New York Times, for example, trumpeted that the "ravishing version [of the Beethoven quartet] heard in the film belongs to the Brentano String Quartet, whose recording is piercingly intense." The reviewer was less kind, however, on the point of the actors' abilities to mime the string players' efforts.

We caught up with Brentano violinist Serena Canin between films and concerts and asked her about being part of a string quartet and the marathon of performances that await the group in the Cliburn competition, during which it will play various piano quintets with the event's 12 semifinalists.

How did the affiliation with the next Cliburn come about?

It was pretty much out of the blue. We didn't expect it. But we were thrilled at the idea of being part of something so important. And it will be so interesting to meet all these different pianists and deal with all those different styles. It's going to be a very interesting challenge. No two pianists will be the same. But I'm looking forward to that aspect of it. I think I will need a different colored pencil [for marking scores] for each one.

Who is the leader in a piano quintet?

In the piano quintet literature, the pianist really has the lion's share of the work. Most of the action is in the pianist's part. I would say maybe it is 50 percent piano and 50 percent string quartet -- not one-fifth piano as you might imagine. So I think we will take that person's cues and try to fit ourselves in their spirit.

We will have to be very adaptable. They will have to meet us partway, too. But, so much of the music is in the piano part, I think it will be more us taking cues from them.

When and how did the group get together?

We have been playing for more than 20 years and have performed all over the world. Three of us [Canin, violinist Mark Steinberg and violist Misha Amory] were at Juilliard at the same time. Our current cellist, Nina Lee, who is also a Juilliard product, joined us in 1999. It's the ideal team.

We don't have a conductor, so all the decisions that we make, we have to figure out ourselves. We play a lot. We talk some. And we try to make a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts.

How does string quartet playing differ from orchestral playing?

It's really quite different. Not having a conductor makes it very different. You have to know one another's parts super well to stay together. In an orchestra, who can sometimes sit back and just follow the conductor because that is exactly what everybody else is doing. In a string quartet, you have to be much more aware of the people around you. The orchestra has a bigger range. But the string quartet is more intimate and personal. It's hard to have everything.

At the Cliburn competition, you will be called upon to play a variety of works (the semifinalists can choose among piano quintets by Brahms, Dvorak, Schumann and Franck). Do you have a favorite?

We are familiar with the repertoire. We've played all the pieces before, several times even. And we really like them all. The Franck [quintet] is perhaps the newest to us, so we are programming it in some of our concerts this season. [Tuesday's concert, however, will feature quartets by Purcell, Haydn, Brahms and Bartok.]

They are all wonderful. They represent the best of what that composer did. Everyone was kind at their best at writing piano quintets.

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