Violinist  Shmuel  Ashkenasi
Violist  Richard Young
of  the
Vermeer  Quartet

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


See my interviews with Murray Perahia, and Janos Starker

This is one of the few conversations I have had with more than one guest.  Two members of the Vermeer Quartet, founder and first violinist Shmuel Ashkenasi, and violist Richard Young, came to my home-studio in June of 1989.  Happily, it was a true conversation, with the ideas flowing back and forth among all three of us.  So rather than just going back-and-forth, watch the indications of who is speaking.

Note that the second violinist shown above, Mathias Tacke, joined the ensemble in 1992, so the discussion on this webpage makes references to Pierre Menard, who can be seen on the left in the LP cover-photo below.  Continuing toward the right in the photo are Shmuel, Richard, and Marc.

While setting up for the interview, the talk was about the instruments, and specifically the technical needs of the bows . . . . . . . . .

vermeer Bruce Duffie:   How often do bows have to be re-haired?

Shmuel Ashkenasi:   It depends on the hair, and it depends on the player.  If you use the same bow all the time, probably just once a month, or once in six weeks.  I use more than one at a time, so I do it about every three months.  I have a whole bunch of bows.

Richard Young:   We would change bows between movements if it were possible.

BD:   Why?  What is it about the hair that makes the sound different from one bow to another, or one re-hairing to another?

Shmuel:   Basically, the hair produces the sound.  It’s the fact that it is not slick.  It is coarse.  If it is too coarse, the rosin will cake, and then it will be too crunchy.  If it’s too slick, then it doesn’t speak.  Then there is the strength of the hair.

BD:   Do you specify a certain brand of hair, or a certain thickness of hair, or hair from a certain animal?

Shmuel:   No, it’s always horsetail, and the best hair comes from Siberia and China.  They all say they have the best hair, and then you try it and it’s not good.  Either it breaks, or it doesn’t grip.

BD:   Who does have the best hair?

Shmuel:   I’ve had the best luck in Europe, and Germany, and England.  Occasionally, I have gotten some pretty good hair here as well.

Richard:   [Joking]  I think the real reason you got all those bows is because you have those instead of mistresses.

BD:   [With a wink]  Is your violin like your mistress?

Shmuel:   [Smiles]  No, it’s like my wife.  I’ve been faithful to that violin for close to twenty-five years.  Occasionally, I feel like having an affair, but I keep coming back to the same violin.

BD:   What is it about a particular violin, or a particular viola, that makes it special in your hands, that wouldn’t be as special in someone else’s hands and fingers?

Shmuel:   It’s a combination of things.  A great violin could be special in many different hands, but there are those violins that are not so great, that are special only in certain hands.  It depends how you treat it, how you play it, the thickness of your fingers, the amount of pressure versus speed of the bow, how close you are to the bridge, how much rosin you use...  There are so many factors.

BD:   Then how much of that is the player, and how much is the instrument?

Shmuel:   It’s hard to say.  I prefer a great hall with a poor violin, to a terrible hall with a great violin.

BD:   Do you feel the same thing on the viola?

Richard:   I think so, yes.  The important thing about the instrument is that whether it’s a famous maker or not, the player just has to feel comfortable playing it.  To many people, just the response, the way the instrument responds to what you try to do with it is almost more important than how it sounds, because if you feel comfortable, if you feel the instruments responding, then you play better, and sometimes you can overcome the limitations of an instrument that may not be sounding so good.

BD:   I assume, though, that to play on an instrument day after day, you’ll get one that feels good and sounds good as much as you can.

Richard:   That’s the ideal.

BD:   Are the old instruments
Stradivarius, Amati, and all the other famous namesusually better, or generally better, or sometimes better?

vermeer Richard:   Usually they are better.  Certainly, there are exceptions.  We’ve all played Strads, or Amatis, or Guarneri, the designer labels, some of which don’t sound so good, but that’s really the exception rather than the rule.  A lot of times when I’ve played a big name instrument that I didn’t care for so much, I would bet that in most cases I would like it better if it were setup and adjusted more to my taste.

BD:   Like moving the sound post around, or something like that?  [Note that the recording shown at left has the Vienna Symphony Orchestra conducted by Heribert Esser.]

Richard:   Move the sound post, make the bridge higher or lower, use different strings, and so forth.  For example, the Zino Francescatti Strad.  I saw it once in a shop in New York, and it had an impossibly high bridge.  I don’t know very many people that could play an instrument with such a high bridge.  It means the strings are so much higher off the fingerboard, so you have to press more.

BD:   Then when you get way up into the high positions, you’re having to press down very hard.

Richard:   Yes, exactly.  But he was so used to it.  It was his fiddle, and he just didn’t want to change because, when you lower the bridge, it does change the response, and also the quality of the sound.  He just liked how it felt and how it sounded, but it wouldn’t suit too many people.

BD:   You two are members of a quartet.  Do you try to get instruments that will sound best together as a quartet, or do you still try to have four individual sounds?

Shmuel:   We try for both.  It depends on the score.  We each try to have an instrument that will blend well, and have an individual characteristic at the same time.  I want to go back to the question you asked about the old instruments.  One point that deserves to be made, and what I find the most fascinating and extremely interesting is the fact that those instruments which were made 250 to 300 years ago were made for literature and halls that did not demand a big sound.  Nevertheless, they are chosen today even for those characteristics.  So, when you ask about all the Stradivariuses and all the Amatis, I haven’t seen them all, but all that I’ve seen certainly are superior instruments for the qualifications of the time.  They didn’t have big halls.  They didn’t have the big romantic concertos.  They didn’t have the big orchestras, so they didn’t need really a very big sound.  They needed to find quality and evenness in their sound, and they all have that.  If they don’t, very often it is because next to none of these instruments have been not tempered with.  A lot of wood has been taken off, and the neck has been modernized, and they’ve been souped up to sound louder.

BD:   And they have been put together with new glue.  I was led to believe at one time that they thought it was the glue that Stradivarius used that made them special.

Shmuel:   I don’t think that makes any difference.  If it makes a difference, it is such a small difference that it couldn’t be audible.

BD:   It’s not going to change the resonance?

Shmuel:   I don’t believe so.  I may be wrong, but experiments have been done.  If you press on the ribs of the instrument, I don’t think it makes much difference.

BD:   We’re talking about old instruments playing old music, yet we’re still playing old music today in concert halls large and small.  Has the way that you produce music, basically the same notes, changed for Twentieth century audiences, now as we head into the Twenty-first century?  You don
t play Vivaldi for Vivaldi’s audience.  Now, you’re playing Vivaldi for a post-World War II audience, so it’s going to be a completely different kind of thing.  Do you play it differently because our ears are different?

Richard:   At the risk of sounding like we don’t care about the audience
because we do care a great dealI don’t think we play one bit differently for one audience or another because it’s a modern audience as opposed to a different taste of back then.  We try to play what’s in the score, period.  We try to bring as much of ourselves as we can to bear on the music, whatever music it is that we play.  But the overwhelming governing factor that imbues all of our work is what’s in the score.  The same stuff is in the score now as it was in Beethoven’s time, notwithstanding all the new editions that we have.

vermeer Shmuel:   I will say that there is an influence on the audience that is sort of back-door, and that is, unfortunately, the influence of the recording industry.  The recording industry caters to the audience, and that process changes tastes
sometimes to the good, often to the bad.

BD:   Does the audience influence the choice of repertoire?

Shmuel:   Yes, also.

BD:   As the Vermeer Quartet, which of you decides, or is it the four of you collectively that decides what will go on each concert, or on each recording?

Shmuel:   We do it always together.  In fact, we may be unique in that we have an unwritten rule in this group that we will not play a work that all four of us don’t love.

BD:   Each man has a veto?

Shmuel:   Yes.

Richard:   No majority rules in our quartet.

BD:   It’s all or nothing.

Richard:   That’s right.

Shmuel:   Unfortunately, for other groups such as string trios, they cannot have this because they don’t have any repertoire because it’s so limited.  Fortunately for us, there are so many great masterpieces that we all love, that we never run out of works that we all will agree to play.

Richard:   We are influenced by the audience, but certainly by the auspices that we play for.  We have to play a large portion of the repertoire that’s the meat-and-potatoes of the repertoire, only because the presenting societies demand it.  That’s how they sell their series, and they expect it.  Most of our work that we offer on tour centers around the masterpieces of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and so forth.  But we try always to sneak some other things in there, and always something from the 20th century.  It is not necessarily brand-new
although we have played some brand-new thingsbut we try to stretch the ears a little bit here and there.  It’s good for us, too.

BD:   Do you feel that each concert should be an enjoying experience as well as a learning experience?

Shmuel:   Absolutely.

BD:   Then where should be the balance, in either a piece of music or in the whole concert, between the artistic achievement and entertainment value?

Shmuel:   I don’t know that I would call it an
entertainment value necessarily.  One can enjoy it without it being entertaining.  One can be very moved and enjoy it that way.  If it is a very sad piece, you can enjoy it, and it’s not entertaining as such.

BD:   Enjoy the sadness?

Shmuel:   Enjoy the sadness, but
entertainment suggests that it must be always fun, or joyous, or even comic.

BD:   Or frivolous?

vermeer Shmuel:   Or frivolous, yes.  Of course, there is that element in music as well, but I don’t think we would play a work that is offbeat or unknown just for its own sake.  Usually, we try to resurrect neglected works, or discover works that are just not known, and are too good to be neglected.

Richard:   Very often, we get advice from loyal sponsors.  There’s one man in particular that has been very loyal to the quartet in Germany, who suggested we learn the first Ligeti quartet.  I’m quite sure we would not have learned it otherwise.  We trusted him, and trusted his judgment, and it turned out to be just a dynamite piece.  We carried it all year long, and it was a real good experience.  It was very successful as far as the audiences were concerned.

BD:   Since you carried it for a season, is it likely to come back in another season?

Richard:   Yes.

Shmuel:   Yes.

BD:   Does your experience with the first quartet make you curious to want to learn the second quartet?

Shmuel:   Very much so, but we will listen to it.  As a group, we are a distance away from learning it.  We may, and we may not.  We have to convince each other that it’s worthwhile.

Richard:   Right now, we’re deciding on the programs for the season after next.  There’s a Max Bruch quartet... he did write something other than the G Minor Concerto and the Scottish Fantasy!  There are actually three quartets.

BD:   When someone says to take a look at this or take a listen to that, what is it that you’re listening for?  What is it that’s going to decide “yes, we’ll do it,” or “no, we won’t do it”?

Shmuel:   There must be an immediate appeal, especially if it’s a work that is more than forty or fifty years old.  It must have some originality.  It must say something new, or it must be an old thing in a new way, or in a marvelous way, or in a moving way.  It has to have value.  You have to be seduced by the music.

Richard:   Next season, we’re playing a quartet of Jacques Ibert.  I don’t know of another quartet that’s playing it.  Pierre, our second violinist, heard the recording on some offbeat label, and took a liking to it.

Shmuel:   We all listened to it, not from the beginning to the end, but to a bit of each movement just to see that there’s no boring slow movement, or a trivial section.  Then we decided to chance it.

BD:   Is the Vermeer quartet in a position that it can play such a French piece in a French way, or do you just play it in a musical way?

Shmuel:   I don’t know what
French way means.

Richard:   [With a smile]  We do have a French Canadian in our group.  Does that count?  [Laughter all around]  It’s close.

Shmuel:   We try to interpret the music to its originality, and since it is French, it becomes part of the French culture.  Hopefully, it will sound to French people like we play it in a French way, but I don’t know exactly what that means.  The music says it’s better.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But you wouldn’t play it and approach it the same way as some of the Beethoven quartets.

Shmuel:   We would approach it the same way, but something else will come out.  We also approach the Beethoven quartets different one from the other, but I understand what you’re saying.  There is a Germanic approach, and certainly Italian music should be played differently.  But the music says that, and hopefully we pick it out.  We don’t play different works the same way.

BD:   Is that the individual genius of Ibert and Beethoven?

Shmuel:   I would imagine so, but the individual genius was also influenced by the culture and heritage.  It comes back to nationality, and geography, and climate, and culture.

Richard:   There is such a thing as a stereotypical French string sound.  I guess that stereotype would suggest that you play over the fingerboard, or you use wispy pastel colors, but that, too, can become its own stereotype.  It can become a cliché if you just superimpose it over every bit of French music that you approach.  You really have to take each movement, each phrase, each bar on its own merits and find the right sound, whether it’s a piece of French music, or German music, or whatever.

BD:   [With a wink]  You don’t picture a Parisian cafe, as opposed to a German beer hall?

Richard:   [Smiles]  Sometimes it does help.  There’s a use for literal images.  If I’m having trouble finding out what the music means, not often, but sometimes it does help to try to put yourself in another frame of reference.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you, as a quartet, commissioned new works?

vermeer Shmuel:   We were involved in the commission of a quartet of Ezra Laderman, but we were not the only quartet involved.  It was his Fifth Quartet, and a few quartets were involved in the commission and performing.  The idea was that it shouldn’t be performed just once or twice, but it should be performed all over the country simultaneously.

Richard:   We’ve also been involved in performances that of works which were commissioned for us by other presenting organizations.  For example, Chamber Music Chicago commissioned the Sextet [for Clarinet, Piano, and String Quartet] of Dick Hyman (in 1988), and next season, there’s going to be a work by Steven Mackey [On All Fours, premiered May 16, 1990] that’s being commissioned for us to play.

BD:   For these works, you’re presented with a piece that you have to play?

Shmuel:   Yes, and often it’s a problem.  This would be very much the exception to our rule, but if too many arms are twisted, we will yield occasionally.  It has to be for a good cause, so even if we grow to hate the work, at least we know that it’s in a good cause, like encouraging young composers.  The benefits often will justify us having to do the work.

BD:   What advice would you have for a composer who was writing a quartet or a chamber work for you?

Shmuel:   For me, the first thing I would say is that it should be written for what I was trained to do.

BD:   That is to play beautiful sounds?

Shmuel:   Not necessarily beautiful.  There is beauty in ugliness too, but literal demands and instrumental demands that I was not trained to do make me feel incompetent.... like speaking, or singing, or shouting...

Richard:   ...or hitting the back of the instrument with your bow.

Shmuel:   Yes.  There are so many effects.  I’m not against finding new sounds, and I don’t think that what we have is necessarily the ultimate, but I don’t feel qualified to perform it unless I study it.  The other thing is that it must be alive.  I don’t think that it should be difficult for its own sake.  Practically every new work that we’ve done was very difficult.  If it’s a great work, you justify the difficulty, but if it isn’t, you feel that it’s difficult for its own sake, and that gets really cumbersome.

Richard:   You don’t find how good the piece is until you’ve invested so much time and effort.  You’re delighted when you find out that it’s worth all of that trouble, but more often than not, for one reason or another, it’s not.  I don’t want to give the impression that I, or we, are not always looking for something that’s original, something new, because the group wants to do new works.  But if you ask for advice, what we could tell other people who are interested in writing new quartets is that not all composers, or not many composers, really know all of the possibilities that even Beethoven explored.  They are writing without a full working knowledge of what’s possible for a quartet, and instead they come up with new things or new techniques that are sometimes valuable, sometimes not, but they don’t know the existing vocabulary.

BD:   Even in old masters, do you sometimes feel that some of the composers are writing little symphonies rather than great chamber works?

Shmuel:   I personally don’t feel that there is much difference.  It’s only a difference of orchestration, but it’s all chamber music
not in the sense that amateurs get together and sight read, but in the sense that there is an interplay between voices, and counterpoint.  When I play solo pieces of Bach, I find that is also chamber music, even though I’m doing it alone.  When I hear symphonies of Bruckner or Mahler, these, too, are chamber music, in the sense of the interplay of voices.  It’s orchestrated differently, but I don’t find that Beethoven piano sonatas and symphonies are all that much different.

BD:   Do you find a difference when you’re playing a solo concerto in front of an orchestra, as opposed to four men playing in the chamber group?

Shmuel:   There is a difference, but it’s in the form.  It’s a Concerto Form, with the exposition repeated, and that sort of thing.  The quality of the music may be more showy, such as an elaborate cadenza before the recapitulation at the end of the movement.  Many quartets do not have that, and many symphonies also do not.  Some do, but I don’t find that the content and the structure of the music is all that much different.  Indeed, Beethoven rewrote works in certain combinations for other combinations presumably because they would sell.  He was considering that, as well.

BD:   Are you conscious of the fact that you want the Vermeer quartet to sell?

Shmuel:   Yes.

Richard:   We’re certainly made conscious of that concept.

BD:   Does that enter into the artistic decisions?

Richard:   Not at all.

Shmuel:   Never.

Richard:   We all know a lot of musicians who were trained to do things that would project in such a way as to make a popular impression, and we resist that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Earlier we mentioned recordings.  Do you play differently in the recording studio than you do in the concert hall?

vermeer Shmuel:   Unfortunately, yes.

Richard:   Yes.

BD:   How so?

Richard:   [Quietly laughs]  God, there’s nothing harder to do than make a recording.  We’ve all been trained since we were very young to play for an audience, and the reward, after all of the work, is to play it all the way through in public.  It’s a very festive occasion, and something that we all are geared to do.  But the recording situation is different, and maybe it’s just because we haven’t all done it since we were ten years old.  It’s relatively new for us, but it’s a very unnatural situation.  I’m sure any artist would tell you this.

BD:   There’s no truth to the idea that you can just sit there and do it again, and again, and again until you get it just the way you want you it?

Richard:   When you play a passage and you screw it up, you know that you have unlimited chances to go back and do it again.  But the more you go back and do little pieces of things, subconsciously you become more safe in the way that you play, and you become more self-conscious.  As a result, you don’t play as well... at least I don’t, and I think our quartet does not.  Going back, and back, and back, and nitpicking does not really help.  Certainly musically, but also technically, we probably play as well or better on the stage than we do in the studio, even though we should know that in the studio we can always go back and pick up the mistakes.

BD:   In the studio, don’t you just simply play it through?

Shmuel:   We do.

Richard:   We do.  We try to, and the producers know us by now.  This is a common tendency, and they force us to play things through, or play large portions of things, even when one or more of us may say, “But what about three measures after letter C?  I missed something there.”  But still, there’s just that human element involved, and you know that the microphone is there staring you in the face.  You think that this is the one time you’ve got to get it right.  All your friends are going to hear this, and regardless of who’s going to hear it, this is the one version that you’re going to hear again.

BD:   That’s different than knowing all your friends are in the audience?

Richard:   That’s right.

Shmuel:   It’s actually a serious state of affairs, which was caused, perhaps, by the recording industry.  Because the emphasis on technical competence
indeed perfectionis so overwhelming, that almost all the shadings, and more-important elements of a performance are erased.

BD:   Despite it all, have you basically been pleased with the flat pieces of vinyl that have been issued?

Shmuel:   Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  To begin with, there’s a compromise in the sound.  There is only so much that you can do in that particular studio, with that particular microphone, with that particular set of equipment, and those particular speakers.  I’ve had the phenomenal experience of loving a recording on a set of speakers and equipment, and hating the same recording on another set.  In fact, I found that it influenced the tempo, which obviously remained the same.

vermeer BD:   On one set it was too fast, and on another one it was just right?

Shmuel:   That’s right.  On one it was very dry, and everything seemed slow.

BD:   Is it not some comfort to know that each individual, on his or her home stereo, is going to adjust it to their liking?

Shmuel:   Yes, it is of some comfort, but for this whole generation there is an over-emphasis on technical perfection.  Mind you, I’m very much for playing perfectly, but not to the expense of structurally being sound, and emotionally being one with the music.  That is not possible.  You asked about doing it over, and over, and over until you’re pleased.  What you cannot do is do it the first time.  That is something that you cannot do the first or second time, and by that later time, you’re spent.  Moreover, you cannot record the whole movement over and over.  Logistically, it’s not possible.  So, you don’t have the structure in front of you.  You have to do little bits.

BD:   You get good takes of the whole thing, and then insert little patches?

Shmuel:   That’s exactly what we do.

Richard:   When we recorded the A minor Quartet Op. 13 of Mendelssohn, we spent two or three days in the Teldec studio in Berlin.  It was just a coincidence, but right after we finished that recording, we had been hired to play a radio taping of the same piece across town in for German Radio.  Of course, the last thing we wanted to do after going through bloody hell with this damn recording for Teldec, was to do the same piece the very next day.  When you record for the radio, they do some editing, but it’s minimal.

BD:   Basically, they let it go unless it falls apart?

Richard:   Yes.  It was an extraordinary experience for me and for us.  We went there after finishing the recording, and I don’t think we ever played it better.  They did one minor insert, and that was it.  We were just so relaxed.  There was something about having been told that previous day by that voice of doom over the speaker (the producer in the booth) saying, “It is still not together.  Still out of tune.”  So, for the radio there just wasn’t anything that we didn’t know about existing problems, or tendencies that we had in that piece that we couldn’t somehow account for.

BD:   Would it have been good, then, to go back across town once more and do it that way for Teldec?

Shmuel:   There are too many variables.  The studio where we record doesn’t sound all that good to begin with.

BD:   [Surprised]  Why do they put up with that???

Shmuel:   [Laughs]  They own it.  It saves them money.  There are so many factors.  It has to be relatively quiet, and not have airplanes, and subways, and traffic, and that sort of thing.  Also, it has to be good for recording more things than just us.  In some halls, it sounds well but it doesn’t do so well on the recording.  That radio studio sounded much more flattering than the other one.  But then, we did have the experience of having rehearsed, and done all of the things, and even though I agree with Richard that it felt awfully good, and it may well be the best we ever played it, it wasn’t good enough for the recording.

Richard:   I’d like to hear the tape and compare it with the record.  Of course, they wouldn’t have let us leave the country if it wasn’t right.  Earlier, when you were talking about instruments, Shmuel mentioned how important is the quality of the sound of the room itself, and the ambiance of the room.  I was told that the studio where we did the radio taping, was the oldest recording studio for classical music in the world.  There was something about the sound of that room that was just so inspiring.  It was not any bigger than the studio that we had for Teldec.  It was about the size of a small high school gymnasium.  It had high ceilings, and a lot of wood just like the Teldec studio, but there’s something about the character of the sound there that was special.  It put greater responsibility on the players to play well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I asked before about advice to composers.  In all of this thinking about performing, what advice do you have for young quartets, or even young individual players?

Shmuel:   I have usually two paired answers.  The first one is to study the score.  There is no substitute for that, and it cannot be done enough.  The other bit of advice that I have is for the individual members.  If they want to contribute to their group, they should practice their parts.  Those two elements are the most important gifts that an individual can give to the quartet.

BD:   Then once they come to the quartet, and they are together as four players, what kind of advice do you have
assuming they have prepared themselves individually?

vermeer Shmuel:   They should love each other.  It’s easy to say and very difficult to do.  In quartet playing, the whole is the sum of the parts.  It used to be that you could hide one or two weaker members in a quartetthe inner voicesbut today’s standards just don’t allow that.  On any level, whether it’s amateur, or student, or professional, the quartet is going to be only as good as every member can play individually.  Then you come to grips with a host of ensemble problems, in working things and balancing intonation within the group and so forth.  But you’re never going to play one chord in tune as a quartet if you can’t play in tune yourself on your own instrument.

BD:   But then you have to come together and make sure that all four will blend.

Shmuel:   Yes.

Richard:   When we consider technical things in our quartet, we work the most on intonation, and voicing, and balancing of chords.

BD:   Who listens for that
the individual members, or is there a fifth set of ears?

Richard:   It’s just the four of us.  We’d all like to think that we are able to separate ourselves from our menial parts, and listen objectively as if from the outside.  Very often, when we listen to tapes or recordings, we can be a little more objective because we’re not also playing our instruments and parts.  We have to train ourselves to listen not only to our part, and to how that part sounds within the group, but also how it would sound from outside the group.

BD:   Is there ever a case where the two violinists switch first and second?

Shmuel:   Not in our group.

BD:    Some groups do that.

Shmuel:   That’s right.

Richard:   The switching that is involved is just with the different repertoire.  For example, piano quartets require only one violin, and usually Pierre has first refusal on the violin part.

BD:   [To Shmuel]  You don’t feel like you’re being forced out of work?

Shmuel:   No!  On the contrary, I welcome him playing because, first of all, it gives me a break.  I have so many more notes as first violist of the quartet than anyone else, so I’m delighted not to have to practice more.  It’s very healthy for the second violinist to play as much as possible, because it gives him leadership and assertiveness qualities to sharpen, which are very, very important.

BD:   But that still isn’t enough to influence you to play half the concert as first, and half the concert as second?

Shmuel:   No.  I am not opposed to that.  I just think that it is not ultimately for the good of the quartet.  You may have the best first violinist and the best second violinist in the world in a group, but if you switch them, they may not be the best any more.  But it’s possible.  There are very successful quartets who are switching, and certainly psychologically and logistically it may have a lot of benefits.

Richard:   At least in the case of a couple quarters I can think of, it really does help keep peace in the family, and that’s important.  There’s this standard Second-Violin Complex, that a person feels he’s not given the opportunities to shine or project enough.

BD:   [To Richard]  You were a violinist, and you switched over to viola.  Has playing the inner voice meant a big change in your psychology?

Richard:   Actually, I played second violin in the New Hungarian Quartet [LP shown above right, and CD shown below], and I played violin in a piano trio.  Now I’m playing viola in this quartet, so I have had a taste of three of the roles in a chamber group.  [Laughing]  Marc’s going to give me some cello lessons...  [More laughter]


BD:   Is it really different playing the inner voice as opposed to playing the first violin?

Richard:   This is going to sound like a flip answer, but it’s really the truth.  One of the things that was most disorienting for me when I first started playing viola in this quartet, was simply walking to the other side of the stage to sit down, and having the audience be on the wrong side of me.  I
d never played viola before.  All my life, I had been used to walking out and sitting or standing in a certain place in relation to the audience.  They were always off to my right, at about the 2 o’clock position.  There’s something just so confusing about walking out to the wrong place, facing the wrong direction, and still having to feel comfortable with it.

BD:   Both of the violinists have their sound going out toward the audience.  For the violist, if anything, the sound is going up into the rest of the quartet, or into the wings.  Can you change the position of the instrument at all?

vermeer Richard:   To be honest with you, I’m still not real comfortable.  It seems that whatever I do, however I sit, it’s either unnatural, or I’m just not sure how much it does even matter.  A lot of violists turn way out like that when they duck.  They dip the instrument so that the sound will come out through the top towards the audience more.  I’ve tried various things, and it’s really difficult to know if anything is important.

BD:   Do you then play very slightly louder to compensate?

Richard:   It depends who you ask.  I don
t do it intentionally, or at least not for that reason.

BD:   I assume this would all come back to the question of balance.  If your balance is not good, then you’ve got to stress it just a little bit more to get out, to be heard.

Richard:   That’s right.  The quartet that had the ideal seating was the Kolisch Quartet.  Usually, you hold the violin with the left hand, and bow it with the right hand.  Because of an injury, he switched, and held it with the right hand, and bowed with the left hand.  What this meant was that he was able to sit on the right, where the violist usually sits, and the second violinist was where the first violinist usually is.  So, the two violinists were facing each other, and the violist was seated where the second violinist usually is.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me get a little history of the Vermeer Quartet.  It was founded in Marlboro.  Who were the original members?

Before we were a quartet, we looked for a second violinist for most of a whole year.  We played trios, and kept auditioning second violinists until we found Pierre.  In 1970, we became a quartet.  I and Pierre were the two violins, Scott Nikrenz was the violist, and Richard Sher was the cellist.  [Photo of this group is shown farther down on this webpage.]  Since then, we had one more cellist before Marc, who joined us about five years into the life of the quartet, and he stayed.  We have had quite a few violists, who seem to be an endangered species.  [Richard Young joined the quartet in 1985, and remained through its final concerts in 2007.  LP cover at right shows violist Bernard Zaslav.]

BD:   Why is it that violists are an endangered species in a string quartet?

Shmuel:   It
s not only in string quartets.  There just are not so many wonderful violists around.  There are some, but not as many as there are quartets.  Nobuko Imai, who used to be in the quartet, has had quite a substantial solo career.  There is also Kim Kashkashian.  She’s a terrific chamber music player, and she recorded all the Hindemith solo sonatas recently.

The best violist these days is Pinchas Zukerman.  Most of the better violists are chamber music players.  It really goes back to the early training.  First of all, I should preface what I’m going to say by saying that I don’t believe, as others believe, that the standards are lower for viola than are for violin or cello.  I just think that there are fewer violists who are at that higher standard than there are violinists and cellists.  If you go to any of the public-school music programs, more often than not, the kids that are encouraged to play viola are the kids who are not good violinists, or who are somehow physically awkward, or gangly, or big.  They instinctively give them the big instrument.  So, already you have this ugly duckling syndrome.

BD:   So, really, it’s not the violists that are shortchanging the music, but it’s the whole system that is shortchanging the viola.

Shmuel:   That’s right.  Also, you have a very big problem with the repertoire.  To play in a quartet, or to play in a great orchestra are the two things that a violist can strive for.  There are no solo careers out there for a violist... at least none that is within one’s reasonable expectations.

BD:   There is Harold in Italy of Berlioz, and the Walton Concerto.  Those are the only two that I can think of off-hand.

Richard:   [With a smile]  There are three and a half concertos for viola, so even if the public demanded to hear more viola concertos, the repertoire isn’t there.

While preparing this conversation for posting in August of 2020, I asked Richard to clarify his jest, and in an e-mail message he replied that there was the Walton Concerto (which was written in 1929 at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham, and when it was rejected by Lionel Tertis, it was premiered by Paul Hindemith), and the Bartók Concerto (of which the unfinished sketches were completed by Tibor Serly; it was commissioned and premiered by William Primrose, conducted by Antal Dorati in 1949), as well as Der Schwanendreher of Hindemith (premiered in 1935 by the composer), plus the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Violin and Viola (which dates from 1779. The solo viola part is written in D major instead of E-Flat major, and the instrument is tuned a semitone sharper (scordatura technique), to give a more brilliant tone. This technique is uncommon when performed on the modern viola and is used mostly in performance on original instruments.)

Richard also said there are works by Telemann, Stamitz, Hoffmeister, and their contemporaries, which are mostly played by students, as well as a few contemporary pieces.  However, he said that Harold in Italy doesnt really count, unless you also say that Don Quixote of Richard Strauss is a cello concerto!

BD:   Have you thought of encouraging some composers that you admire to write a viola concerto?

Richard:   Me, personally?  No.  My life is with the quartet.  I do a little bit of playing outside the quartet, both violin and viola, but I have my hands full as it is.  I learned the standard viola repertoire in order to teach my students, but I’m not a frustrated viola soloist.

BD:   Are you a frustrated violinist?

Richard:   No, I play enough violin, so that it’s like getting out on the road and taking a spin.  Then I come back for the nitty-gritty in the quartet.

BD:   When you play violin and viola, how long does it take to adjust to the size, and the positions, and everything else?

Richard:   I’ve played violin and viola on the same program, so I’m well-practiced on both.  It’s not a problem to switch.

BD:   Irving Ilmer told me that George Perle wrote a piece which calls for both instruments.  [Irving Ilmer was violist with the Fine Arts Quartet from 1952-63, and was my next-door neighbor during that period!  Interestingly, two other violists in the Fine Arts Quartet, which was founded in 1946, were also members of the Vermeer Quartet before Richard Young.]

Richard:   That’s right.  I heard Irving play it, and it’s a good piece.  I like George Perle.  I like his music, and played one of his solo violin sonatas, which I liked that very much.  But no, I haven’t played this piece.

BD:   [To Shmuel]  Have you done any playing on viola or has it been all violin?

Shmuel:   I have not done any playing on the viola professionally.  When doctors and lawyers ask me to play chamber music, I make sure to play the viola.

BD:   Why?

Shmuel:   Because I’ve done all of these parts playing first violin with great players, my colleagues.  Now, to play those great works with people who are not as competent doesn’t do much for me right at this point.

BD:   Is the viola part a little more of a challenge to you, and does it put you a little closer to their level?

Shmuel:   Yes, it does.  I’m not very well-practiced on the viola, and I don’t read the clef that well, so I feel there is a little bit more closeness.


BD:   What else do you do besides quartet playing?  I understand you play a mean game of tennis...

Shmuel:   I don’t know if it’s mean.  [Laughs]  It’s getting gentler and gentler all the time.  I play a lot, and I watch a lot.  I love the game.  I love the sport.  I like to play, and I like to watch.

BD:   Should we try to get the people who play and watch tennis to come to Vermeer Quartet concerts?

Shmuel:   We should try to get any people to our concerts.

Richard:   There’s a whole region of people that Shmuel knows through his tennis connections, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them don’t even know that you’re a violinist.  [Laughs]  They probably think you’re an accountant.

Shmuel:   Most of them do know that I’m a violinist...

Richard:   ...but when the phone rings in your house and they ask Sam, not Shmuel, then we know it’s a tennis date.

Shmuel:   That’s right.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do they come and support the concerts at all?

Shmuel:   Some of them do.  I let them know, and if they can, more often than not, they do come.

BD:   Are the people who play tennis after working a long day, or on their day off, conscious of the fact that a quartet will spend hours and hours rehearsing before they spend two hours playing a concert?

Shmuel:   I’m not sure that they’re really conscious of the fact.  I tell them, and then they believe me, but I am not sure that they are aware of it.  In fact, I’m not sure that many musicians who don’t do this regularly are aware of the hours that it takes to get proficient at playing quartets.


One of the first photos of the Vermeer Quartet

BD:   How many concerts does the quartet give each season?

Richard:   This last year, it was around eighty.

BD:   And how many days did you rehearse?

Shmuel:   Gosh, I would say we rehearse more than 300 days.

Richard:   We rehearse every day.  One day a week we teach, so we don’t rehearse in order to teach.

Shmuel:   Occasionally, we take a day off in the week, and occasionally we take vacations.  But other than that, we rehearse.

Richard:   When we’re on tour, we go to Europe two or three times a year for two to three weeks at a time, and we even rehearse on the road sometimes when we’re playing at night.

BD:   Do you get enough rehearsal?

Richard:   It’s never enough.  We carry these pieces all season, and they still don’t behave.  There’s always something to criticize.  One of my favorite quotations is from Jascha Heifetz, who said, “There’s no such thing as perfection, because once you attain a certain standard, only then do you find out that it’s not good enough.”  Every quartet player’s motto is that you think you’re making some progress, and then you realize that compared to what the score deserves, it’s still unworthy.

BD:   And yet you go out there and present it to the world.

Richard:   We do our best, and we work very hard in order to be as well-prepared as we can.  Especially with our group, our interpretations are always evolving.  We’re always trying to find better ways, better sounds, better techniques.  Maybe we find a new insight here or there, but we don’t let things stagnate.

BD:   Even if you could rehearse for days, and weeks, and months for each individual concert, it wouldn’t help?

Shmuel:   There is a time when you get negative dividends, because rehearsing a lot does affect the social inter-relation, and that then creeps back into the playing.  When you don’t get along as well, you don’t play together as well.  A fine balance has to be found between adequate rehearsal time and over-rehearsing.  When you just don’t want to be there anymore because you’ve hashed it to death, then it’s time to stop.  The reason we don’t rehearse too much on tour is because we have learned that it does more harm than good very often.

BD:   Do you always rehearse in the same place?

Shmuel:   Most of the time we are in my apartment, and sometimes in Pierre’s apartment when it’s convenient.


BD:   Is playing string quartets fun?

Shmuel:   It’s fun at the highest level.  I can’t imagine anything that is more fun than being with music, and I can’t imagine anything being more fun in music than string quartets.  So, it is fun, but it’s very costly at the same time.

Richard:   I would answer it in the same way.  Maybe
fun isn’t the right word.  ‘Rewarding is more the word I would use, but you have to put up with a great deal of things that are emotionally very costly.  Imagine going to what we do every day at least six days a week.  Each of us goes to a rehearsal, which is a meeting with colleagues who know our strengths and take them for granted, and who know our shortcomings, so they go for the jugular as far as that’s concerned.  I know that when I go to rehearsal I’m going to be criticized by a panel of experts.  How many people, when they go to work every day, are subjected to that kind of thing?  All of us feel that, and all of us feel the social pressure.  That is very much a part of any string quartet.  It almost makes playing for an audience child’s play, compared to the pressures that every string quartet has to deal with just within the group.

Shmuel:   That in itself also has its good side.  I haven’t had a violin lesson in over twenty-five years, but I am getting an awful lot of them every day.  I’m grateful for three sets of ears not letting me get away with it if I’m playing out of tune, or if I’m scratching.  Some of the criticism is justified, and some of it may be less justified, but be that as it may, it is very, very good to know that I have these ears to keep me honest, and to see that I maintain a standard.

BD:   That makes you a better player?

Shmuel:   It certainly does.

Richard:   All of us collectively makes the quartet better.

Shmuel:   I would imagine that it must.  Sometimes we play for audiences that are really not quite worthy of the great literature that we present.  It’s not very often, but it happens.  But nevertheless, at least I know that in that audience are three people that are worthy, and I’m playing with and for them.  That in itself, the quality of that part of the audience, maintains the standard of integrity, and that is very rewarding.  I don’t know many professional people who can say that.

BD:   Thank you for all of the music, both live and on recordings.

Shmuel:   Thank you.

Richard:   Yes, thank you.


© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on June 21, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.