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Two Quartets Do What One Can’t--an Octet

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ask Melvin Berger what he thinks is the most astonishing and mature work written by a young composer, and he answers in a heartbeat: Mendelssohn’s Octet, created when the composer was 16.

“The Octet,” musician-author Berger writes in his “Guide to Chamber Music,” “is considered the most outstanding major composition in the entire history of music by one so young, far surpassing comparable efforts of such famous child prodigies as Mozart and Schubert.”

Even so, few professional quartets have wanted to team up to play the work.

“Inevitably, there have been comparisons between the quartets, which is unfortunate and misleading, so they’ve shied away from doing it,” said violinist Frederick Lifsitz, a member of the Alexander String Quartet. That ensemble teams up with Angeles String Quartet in a performance of the work tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.

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The program, sponsored by the Laguna Chamber Music Society and the Orange County Philharmonic Society, also includes quartets by Mozart and Korngold and the relatively unfamiliar Prelude and Scherzo for Octet by Shostakovich.

The Alexandrians consist of violinists Ge-Fang Yang and Lifsitz, violist Paul Yarbrough and cellist Sandy Wilson. The Angelenos are violinists Kathleen Lenski and Steve Miller, violist Brian Dembow and cellist Stephen Erdody.

Melvin Kaplan, manager of both groups, brought them together for a 12-city tour in which they take turns playing the quartets, trading positions in the octet.

The Angelenos will be what’s called “first quartet” in the Mendelssohn Octet, said Lifsitz, “since L.A. was their home ground.” But in terms of seating, the groups will be mixed, with similar instruments together.

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“Technically, for the first violinist, (the Octet) is a violin concerto,” Lifsitz said. The work was written for Mendelssohn’s violin and viola teacher Eduard Rietz. “So the first violin stands out in terms of technical demands and tricky detail.

“But he made sure every member of the ensemble had something memorable. Something along the line for everyone is a challenge. There are things in the fourth violin part, for instance, where the other players think, ‘I wish I was playing that.’ And the same for the other parts.”

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Although each first violinist has very different styles, “both conduct well from the chair,” Lifsitz said. “Both listen down to what is going on beneath them.”

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That made it easy to work together.

“From the first moment, we got along,” he said. “There were some arguments within the groups, but minimal arguments between the groups.”

The Alexander Quartet was formed in 1981, but only Wilson and Yarbrough remain of the original group. (The Angeles String Quartet was formed in 1988.) Lifsitz joined in 1987, Yang in ’91. The players range in age from 30 “to the mid-40s.” Lifsitz is 34.

Personnel changes occurred not because of interpersonal rancor but because some players were “exhausted from traveling and wanted to get away from that and have a real home base,” he said.

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The quartet got that base in 1988 when it was offered a deal to move from New York to San Francisco, where the members became faculty members at San Francisco State and the resident quartet of San Francisco Performances, a major presenting organization of the city.

Lifsitz has seen other groups come and go.

“These days, for a young quartet like ours to be intact for almost 14 years is really something,” he said. “There are so many economic circumstances which could have made it just impossible earlier to go on. We’re very thankful for all the support we’ve had locally.”

Plus, the Alexandrians shared a vow to “stick together, whatever it took,” Lifsitz said. “There’s always been a feeling of being a team. When others left the quartet, they gave up to a year’s notice to let us know.”

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Right now, the quartet has “about 60 dates in this country and Europe, aside from the 12 here, and a lot of teaching and certain festival dates in the spring and summer,” Lifsitz said.

“We do a lot of master-class work in Europe, residencies in Ireland and England in conjunction with concerts. That all takes time. We could exceed 80 or 90 concerts a year, but this feels like enough. We love it, but the chance of burning out does increase.”

* The Alexander and Angeles string quartets will play Mendelssohn’s Octet tonight at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive. The program, sponsored by the Philharmonic Society and the Laguna Beach Chamber Music Society, also includes works by Mozart, Korngold and Shostakovich. 8 p.m. $14 to $25. (714) 854-4646.


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