When a Quartet Becomes a Trio (temporarily)

by Edna Landau

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Dear Edna:

I am a member of a string quartet. We are all just out of college and trying to get our individual careers going, as well as dedicating a lot of our time to establishing our quartet. We were recently in a situation where we were offered several dates but our second violinist was not available during the proposed dates. We had to turn the work down. I had suggested to the rest of the group that maybe we should have taken the dates and found another violinist. Then we could have done the tour and gotten those performances under our belts, which we all know we need to do. My question is, I know it’s tradition that either it’s all or nothing when accepting dates as an existing quartet, but would we be breaking any “laws” or doing the quartet more harm than good by finding a replacement to make a particular tour happen, even if one of our members is not available? It’s tough getting concert dates these days and we all need to work when we can. Please help! Thank you. —L.H.

Dear L.H.:

Your excellent question is not a simple one to answer. My first reaction was to say that getting the performances under your belt with a substitute violinist will have limited value since the quartet’s collective artistry will only grow when all of the regular members are playing together.  When I thought about it more, I realized that each of the three remaining regular quartet members would undoubtedly learn something  from every performance and that those realizations could be shared with the second violinist upon his or her return.  I then turned my attention to the financial aspect of your question.  Concerts are hard to come by and all young musicians struggle in the beginning.  There is certainly a reason for wanting to salvage dates, if at all possible, and you would not be breaking any “laws” or doing the quartet any harm if you tried to find a replacement to make the tour happen. You turned the dates down, which leads me to believe that your group understands the expectation of audiences and presenters that quartet members will remain constant, as that is the only way that they can hope to develop the unanimity of playing and interpretation that distinguishes the very finest chamber ensembles. You mention that you second guessed your decision, wondering if you should have taken the dates and found another violinist. That might have been an option this one time but certainly you would have needed to reverse the order of that process, checking first to see if the presenters would accept a substitute and then finding another violinist.

To get a broader perspective on this,  I chose to consult with a few presenter colleagues: Jenny Bilfield, Artistic and Executive Director of Stanford Lively Arts; Samuel Dixon, Executive and Artistic Director of Spivey Hall at Clayton State University, and Bert Harclerode, Executive Director of Chamber Music Sedona. I found all of them to be quite open-minded about this situation. My colleagues pointed out that, in general, it is harder for a well-known established quartet to use a substitute on a tour because they become known for a sound and a collective excellence in all facets of their playing that has been built up over many years. Furthermore, audiences become familiar with individual members of the quartet and anticipate the specific contribution that each of them brings to the performance. Since your quartet is just starting out, the audience will be coming more out of their interest in discovering a new young ensemble than out of devotion to individual members of your group. Nevertheless, offering a substitute for a member of the quartet should be a rare occurrence . A quartet that seeks a lasting career must make a serious commitment up front to make the ensemble one of the most important priorities in their lives and to make sacrifices when necessary, for the benefit of the group. Once you start making exceptions and accepting substitutes for less than urgent reasons, the fabric of the quartet is weakened and the quality of the performances will undoubtedly suffer. Sometimes the need for a substitute may come very close to the performance date. Audiences and presenters will generally be very understanding if it is due to illness, a newborn child or a family emergency.  It is important that whoever you use as a substitute be someone whom you know well and with whom you have had some sort of performance experience in the past, even if in other chamber music configurations.  This will help to ease any concerns that the presenter may have. Also, be sure to alert the presenter as soon as you know about the need for a change and ask for their approval. They will be very appreciative if you send a bio and picture of the substitute as quickly as possible.

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© Edna Landau 2011

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