When the members of the Endellion String Quartet were leaving the WQXR studios after their Café Concert, a curious question arose: Where could they find a Checker cab on the street?
The iconic, boxy taxis, of course, have long been absent from New York City streets but the musicians could be forgiven for the oversight. The London-based quartet was in town for their first New York appearance since 1995. The longtime absence is something of a puzzle, as group has maintained an active presence in the UK. The quartet has released major recording projects that have received awards from the British press, appeared on BBC radio and television, performed at the Proms in London and toured through Europe and beyond.
Making up for lost time, the quartet is performing all of Beethoven's string quartets at the Metropolitan Museum of Art over the course of six concerts through February 24. So why the absence? "Because you didn’t ask us,” said David Waterman, the quartet’s cellist, with a laugh. “We used to play here quite often in our early days because we were the winners of the YCA Competition.” The ensemble won the 1981 Young Concert Artists competition in New York and appeared here regularly throughout the 1980s and early '90s.
In the WQXR Café, the ensemble performed a movement of Beethoven's Quartet Op. 130. "For us as a quartet, it’s one of the great pinnacles of the work we do,” said Endellion violist Garfield Jackson, referring to the Beethoven cycle. “It is a mountain to climb and at the moment, because we haven’t done the first concert yet, I feel we’re staring up from base camp.”
The Endellion was formed in 1979 by four London freelancers who convened at a chamber music festival in St. Endellion, England. The ensemble has had only one personnel change since, when Ralph de Souza replaced Louise Williams in 1986. To what do they owe their longevity? “I think laziness is a very useful thing,” said Jackson, half joking. “It takes energy to fight. I think none of us are very good at wasting our energy fighting. Personally I need as much as I can to play concerts.”
Taking a more serious tact, he adds, “I think over the years, you learn where to nudge and push and where not to waste one’s energy. Time does build a confidence to do it the way that seems to suit the people involved.”
While some quartets of the past kept a single-minded approach by forbidding one another to take outside performing or teaching engagements, the members of the Endellion say they've adopted a more carefree attitude. They have sought to reduce the intensity of their performance schedule over time and encourage each other to do performing outside the group as well as teaching and conducting. And unlike some famed quartets that travel and eat meals separately, "usually we eat together,” said Waterman. “Normally we’ll arrange to meet for lunch or supper or whatever."
"It does seem that it’s been a general trend to reduce intensity rather than crank it up.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: George Wellington; Production & Text: Brian Wise; Interview: Naomi Lewin