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Challenging Tradition : String Quartet Is Composed of Women

Julie Rosenfeld and Deborah Redding, first and second violinists respectively of the Colorado String Quartet, embrace an unapologetic post-feminist outlook. It may be an indication that the Colorado Quartet--the first all-female string quartet to play major league chamber music--has come of age.

In 1983, when the unknown foursome won both the Naumburg Chamber Music Award and the Banff International String Quartet Competition, this quartet was an anomaly in the traditionally male-dominated world of the classical string quartet. Since then, other all-women quartets have joined the ranks. The all-female Lark Quartet, for example, spends part of its season in residence at San Diego State University.

Although Colorado has maintained its all-female makeup, in spite of personnel changes in recent years, Rosenfeld does not rule out the possibility of a male colleague joining the quartet. A year ago, cellist Sharon Prater resigned from the quartet.

“Of the male cellists we called,” said Rosenfeld, “one was available, and we played with him. And if he had been the best one, he would have gotten the job, let me tell you. But he wasn’t. We are an equal opportunity employer,” she added. (They hired Diane Chaplin; the fourth member of the quartet is violist Francesca Martin.)

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Saturday at 8 p.m. the Colorado Quartet will perform Mozart’s Quartet No. 17 (“The Hunt”) and Mel Powell’s 1984 String Quartet Sunday at 8 p.m. for the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s SummerFest ’89. Both performances are in Sherwood Auditorium.

Earlier this week, Rosenfeld and Redding discussed their musical philosophies and aired their complaints. As one might expect, their conversational style was as overlapping as the musical counterpoint they perform on stage.

The two musicians were adamant about the value of playing new works such as Powell’s Quartet.

“We’re dedicated to playing 20th-Century music,” said Rosenfeld, “not just because we think its good for you, but because there is great music to be heard. I’m not saying that all 20th-Century music is great--not all Beethoven is great, either.”

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“Actually, all Beethoven is great,” interrupted Redding. “But some works are greater than others. We are committed to versatility, giving a program that has as varied a menu as possible. We are not interested in

all-Viennese, or all-Czech, or all-anything programming. Some quartets specialize in certain areas. We specialize in all areas.”

One area of music the Colorado Quartet is not eager to pursue, however, is that category of women’s music, a touchy subject, according to Rosenfeld.

“People are always calling us up and asking us to play concerts of women’s music,” she said, “and we prefer not to. We respectfully decline these invitations.”

“Because we are not a women’s quartet,” Redding added.

“We are a string quartet that happens to be four women,” Rosenfeld clarified.

“We like to play music that we like, whether it’s written by a man or a mouse,” said Redding. “We don’t play women’s music for the sake of playing women’s music.”

In spite of this antipathy towards women’s music, at one point the Colorado Quartet wanted American composer Ellen Taafe Zwilich to write them a piece.

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“We asked Zwilich, but she turned us down because she had just won her Pulitzer Prize and had too many commissions to handle,” Rosenfeld said. “The Zwilich Double Quartet that we play is a great piece, though. It just hasn’t worked out for her and us. She is the one composer we would like to write us another quartet.”

For the record, the Colorado Quartet has commissioned works by Ezra Laderman, Karel Husa, and George Tsontakis. According to Rosenfeld, they have not only premiered these compositions, but have diligently kept them in the ensemble’s repertory.

“But we look for pieces to revive that were commissioned and then forgotten,” Rosenfeld said. “Our most recent discovery is a major work by the Argentine composer Alberto Ginestera. His Second String Quartet was commissioned by the Juilliard Quartet in 1958, but had all but disappeared. While there is no recording of it, a greater piece I could not describe.”

After more than a decade of playing with the quartet she co-founded, Redding harbors no illusions about the calling of an itinerant performer.

“I think that everybody imagines the life of an artiste is thrilling and very glamorous. The two hours on stage are thrilling, but the other 22 hours a day are grueling. Touring is a lot of schlepping, with very little glamour. We don’t travel with retinues who carry luggage and make sure our car is ready at the car rental agency.”

Nor do they employ bodyguards to keep the autograph hounds at bay.

“No, we’re not in the Jessye Norman league,” said Rosenfeld, “although some people occasionally do approach us in airports and say, ‘Aren’t you the Colorado Quartet?’ ” If Rosenfeld and Redding espouse a post-feminist ideology, there is one area that does vex them.

“I’m going to say something sexist,” Rosenfeld said. “I think men have it easier than women do, because I haven’t yet heard of a man leaving a string quartet because he had a baby.”

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“Until men can be mothers, there’s going to be an imbalance,” Redding added.

“When a woman has a baby, that becomes very important to her--thank goodness, or we’d die out as a race in 75 years,” Rosenfeld said. “I’ve known women (quartet players) who thought they could do it all: Barbara Katz from the Cleveland Quartet and Laurie Smuckler from the Mendelssohn Quartet. They tried and they couldn’t. When we come up with the scientific answer to men having babies, then maybe Robert Mann will leave the Juilliard Quartet to have a baby. It’s a specter that looms over our careers, of course, because we are four women.”

“We do not believe that women can do it all,” Redding said.


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