The Miró Quartet has some history on its side. The ensemble was formed at Oberlin College some 25 years ago and has, save one roster change, remained pretty well the same since day one.
This fall they will celebrate a quarter-century together, said one of the co-founders, cellist Joshua Gindele.
When we spoke he was on the road organizing a renovation project on his home in Austin, Texas. They are on a tour that will bring them to the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on Oct.1 as they open the annual Chamberfest concert series.
The quartet is in Austin because they all teach at the University of Texas and have for the past 17 years.
There is a classical scene in the hometown of the massive South X Southwest Festival, but the city is better known for its rock, country and jazz.
But Gindele said classical music is on a good trajectory in Austin.
Gindele noted the Austin is a tech capital with a famous thrice daily flight to San Jose that is known locally as the Nerd Bird.
He, too, has been involved in a start-up called classicallounge.com a micro-social media site for classical musicians. The site was sold to classicalconnection.com in August 2009, but it has since failed.
But his main focus is the Miró.
This fall is the actual beginning of the foursome’s 25th anniversary year. They will celebrate with the release of a six CD set of Beethoven’s string quartets in November.
“We were recording them one by one and we realized eventually that if we continued that way the release of the entire cycle would coincide with 250th birthday in early 2020 anniversary and with our own 25th.
“It was not purposeful, but it does seem like all those things were lining up so we just went ahead and made it happen for November.”
They are also embarked on what they are calling an archive project.
“It is a way to honour our mentors and the history of the string quartet in the Americas,” Gindele said.
“We were curious about how quartets of the past would program their concerts.” He said the modern programming has become formulaic and, frankly, “stale. After doing it ourselves for 25 years we were looking for something a little different.”
Gindele said that the tradition in programming a concert today means “that you start with a classical work by Haydn, Beethoven or Mozart, then you perform something new or contemporary or something by Bela Bartok or Alban Berg, and then after intermission you play a large scale Classical or Romantic work.”
It is, he said, what people have grown accustomed to. Performers have realized they could sneak some new music medicine to their audience before intermission and the people would stay because something more of a staple was coming.
“It works, I get it. There are a lots of combinations and we have played a lot of interesting concerts with that format but we were looking to see if there was another way to present music and we were looking for inspiration.”
So in this project, which is just getting underway, the quartet is recreating three programs by three “foundational” ensembles from the early part of the 20th century in the Americas.
“Those quartets were our teachers, teachers. They were the people who influenced what our industry has become.” He said the project honours that history.
They have selected programs by the Kneisel Quartet, whom they consider the first truly American quartet; the Flonzaley Quartet, considered the first modern recording quartet and the Kolisch Quartet, the first American quartet devoted to contemporary music.
“We looked at other quartets, but in the end we felt these three programmed differently from one another. And we liked idea that we would be carrying three programs that offered concert presenters something totally different from what happens today.”
Once they picked the groups they started looking at programs with these questions in mind: “What would be interesting? What is the music in here that we haven’t performed or would want to learn?”
They have chosen concert programs peformed in 1910 (Kneisel Quartet), 1929 (Flonzaley Quartet) and 1935 (Kolisch Quartet).
A lot of the music played in the first half of the 20th century isn’t played much today, if at all, he said. This includes a string quartet by Cesar Franck performed in 1910.
“That’s a composer people in orchestral world know well, or if you are an organist you know him. But the quartet world may not even have realized he wrote a string quartet.”
On this same bill is a piece by the composer Adrien-François Servais for solo piano and cello. That is how Gindele performs it today.
In Ottawa, sadly, the Miró Quartet is not playing one these archival concerts. They aren’t quite ready yet.
It’s a program composed of works on different programs in the repertoire including Mozart’s Quartet in B-flat major, Bartók’s String Quartet No. 5 and Robert Schumann’s String Quartet No. 1 in A minor, Op. 41, no. 1.
Two of the three pieces on the bill in Ottawa are programmed in the archival concerts.
The quartet was formed by Daniel Ching, Gindele and two other musicians at Oberlin College. The other founders left the quartet while they all were still in school. That’s the only change.
“We are one of the longest tenured quartets. Part of the reason we have been able to do that is that we try to take care of individual needs. Everyone is considered when we make business decisions.
“I have seen other quartets struggle interpersonally. They can be too worried about ego and performing well individually.
The teaching job in Austin does give them a true home base all in the same city. They have backed off on touring, he said.
“A lot of us now have kids. Travel in itself is tiring and stressful and if we do too much we have a hard time being productive and healthy. It’s better to play less and play better.”
How did they come up with the name?
“We have told a bunch of different stories but I’ll tell you the accurate one.
“We were all students and we had one goal which was to apply to two competitions and to do that we needed a name.
“We didn’t have one and we threw around names for a long time, none of which stuck.”
One Gindele was in art history class when his professor said about the Spanish Surrealist Joan Miró that he “could recreate the masters but when it came to creating his own work he felt he had to be soulful and honest and forget the skill and information he had accumulated from the masters.
“That resonated with me. It fit with my perspective on music. We all learn from the great masters that have come before us. But when it comes to performing it has to be us. It can’t be an imitation of somebody else.”
Gindele went out and bought some prints and took them to his mates.
He explained his idea and somebody in the group said “Why don’t we call ourselves the Miró Quartet?” There was a moment of silence, Gindele said, “and then we went all right. There you have it.”
He said the quartet is looking forward to performing in Ottawa once again with the Chamberfest folks.
“As far as I am concerned it is one of the most effectively organized and artistically interesting festivals in the world. The programming is interesting and the audience is engaged.
They have even found great places to eat in the city’s booming restaurant scene.
“One of perks of having seen a lot of the world. If you don’t find the great places to eat you’re missing out on the cultural experience of the place.”
As Frederick the Great said of armies, clearly string quartets too, travel on their stomachs.
Chamberfest presents The Miró Quartet
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Oct. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and more information: chamberfest.com