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Minimalist Effort : SummerFest Includes Contemporary Work

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

“Who cares if they listen?” may have been an adequate credo for avant-garde composer Roger Sessions. But members of the Ridge String Quartet are considerably more sensitive to audience reaction.

“We don’t want to turn people off,” said violinist Robert Rinehart, one of the founders of the New York-based Ridge Quartet. “We don’t want the audience for chamber music to disappear because of what we play.”

Some of the dilemma of championing contemporary music is seen in the selection of works Rinehart and his colleagues will perform as resident string quartet in the La Jolla Chamber Music Society’s SummerFest ’91. The Ridge Quartet, which makes its San Diego debut Sunday, is the local festival’s only resident ensemble in a series that features 21 performers. Music director Heiichiro Ohyama’s two-week festival, which includes 11 concerts, three master classes, two symposiums and an appearance by the Andre Previn Jazz Trio, opens at 8 p.m. today in Sherwood Auditorium (700 Prospect St.) and continues through Aug. 30.

At 7 p.m. Sunday, the Ridge Quartet will play Beethoven’s E Minor Quartet, Op. 95, and a brief movement from Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles, Op. 9.

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Unlike the Kronos Quartet, Ridge does not specialize in contemporary music, but on Tuesday, the ensemble will delve into more current fare with minimalist Terry Riley’s 1981 String Quartet. The piece is based on the composer’s earlier “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector” for electronic instruments.

The Beethoven, of course, will ruffle no one’s feathers, and the Ridge musicians are counting on Riley’s easygoing modernism to woo the festival’s customarily conservative audiences. According to first violinist Krista Bennion Feeney, Ohyama wanted Ridge to perform a contemporary American string quartet for the festival, whose programming is otherwise weighted to 18th- and 19th-Century Germanic composers. The Riley opus fit the bill.

“The Riley quartet has American roots--a taste of country fiddling and some jazz elements,” explained Feeney. “It’s written in a more popular style, and some say it’s not really that serious.”

“It’s not tremendously deep,” Rinehart observed.

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Finding new music that is not overly abrasive to its audiences has not always been the Ridge Quartet’s goal. In 1987 it championed John Cage’s “String Quartet in Four Parts” in a concert at New York’s 92nd Street Y. Rinehart explained that the quartet worked intensively on Cage’s piece and consulted with the composer. But hostile responses from listeners and lukewarm approbation from the critics made the quartet drop the Cage from its repertory.

“The Cage was a flop as far as the public was concerned,” Feeney said. “A few people loved it, but, on the whole, people didn’t know what to make of it.”

“I think it turned off some audiences,” Rinehart said, “and it’s hard to win them back. There are Mozart quartets that audiences don’t get, especially those with a complicated structure. But, since it’s Mozart and it evokes a purely sensual response, it’s OK.”

Violinists Feeney and Rinehart started playing together in a student string quartet in 1979 when they were studying at the San Francisco Conservatory. The Ridge Quartet’s name comes from the Ridge Vineyards, a winery near Cupertino, Calif., co-founded by Feeney’s father, David Bennion. Feeney credited the nascent ensemble’s first prize at the 1982 Coleman Chamber Music Competition as a decisive factor in launching the quartet professionally.

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“In the beginning, we had no intention of forming a professional quartet,” Rinehart noted. “But, when we won two competitions, we got a manager, and, before we knew it, we were playing 60 concerts a year.” By the late 1980s, the Ridge Quartet had attained an international reputation, spending several years as resident quartet at composer Gian Carlo Menotti’s Spoleto festivals in Italy and the United States.

Keeping the group together has been the major challenge. Although Feeney and Rinehart have stayed from the beginning, the original violist and cellist have long since departed. Violist Maria Lambros Kannen and cellist Peter Wyrick now fill those roles in the decidedly youngish--late 20s, early 30s--ensemble.

“It’s almost miraculous that any quartet stays together,” Rinehart said. “Imagine the difficulty of finding four people in any field who have to work closely together, constantly criticizing one another. When you factor in the spouses, there are actually eight people who have to get along and share a common vision. It’s not an easy life. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”


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