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High-Strung: Inside a Chamber Group Onstage

by Jerome Weeks 18 Feb 2010 8:20 AM

Classical music is a very rare subject for dramas. Circle Theatre presents the Texas premiere of Opus, Michael Hollinger’s play about a famous string quartet auditioning a new member. To quote a line about a different sort of quartet — the Who — what makes a great rock group is what destroys a great rock group. Jerome Weeks asks, how convincing is this portrait of harmony and dissonance?


Facing off over violins and formal wear: Jakie Cabe, Mark Shum, David Lambert, Meg Bauman and Elias Taylorson (l to r) in Circle Theatre’s Opus

  • Lindsey Wilson’s review for FrontRow
  • KERA radio story:
  • Expanded online story:

Circle Theatre in Fort Worth is presenting the Texas premiere of Opus by Michael Hollinger — which concerns a setting and a sub-culture rarely portrayed in a stage drama: the world of classical music, specifically, the troubled inner workings of a famous string quartet.

But how accurate — how convincing — is that depiction?

Opus was inspired by such groups as the Emerson String Quartet and the Guarneri Quartet (who decided to retire last year) – plus Hollinger’s own years studying the viola at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. In the play, the Lazara Quartet (named for a fictitious Italian violin-maker) has lost one of its members. The three remaining musicians must replace him fast. They’re scheduled to play a  concert at the White House — with a television audience in the millions.

Soon, insults are flying, and we learn about the working relationships — and sexual tensions — among the musicians, one of whom also has cancer. In Fort Worth, David Lambert plays Carl, the group’s cellist:

LAMBERT: “Three or four days in the studio, pretty much around the clock? Inevitably, things get tense. With four opinions in the room, four passionate individuals, sometimes tempers flare. Occasionally, there might be a hint of violence.”

phpe10P3QPMCurt Thompson (front) at the Mimir Chamber Music Festival

Directed by Alan Shorter, the actors mime the bowing of the different musicians as they play their instruments, although they don’t imitate their fingering — which still provides a reasonable illusion. It’s not really important, however. What is important is Hollinger’s dramatic portrayal of work and play and personal interactions inside a chamber group. It’s the string quartet as onstage dysfunctional family.

Curt Thompson is the founder of the Mimir Chamber Music Festival in Fort Worth; he also teaches violin at Texas Christian University.

Thompson found Opus entertaining, partly because it is pretty accurate, he says, when it comes to the different personalities, the different roles musicians take on in a string quartet. Violinists, for instance – and Thompson is one, remember – violinists are a bit like sopranos in opera, he says. They can be prima donnas.

THOMPSON: “I hope I don’t get lots of e-mails about this. They tend to be a little flaky sometimes, a little self-absorbed. And when that happens, sometimes sharp – in pitch.”

Opus certainly bears out this characterization with its temperamental lead violinists (Mark Shum and Elias Taylorson). One — the more eccentric and visionary one — is even on serious anti-depressants.  The new replacement played by Meg Bauman, seems reasonable enough — extremely cautious though smart. But then, she’s just starting out and wants the job. She’s not likely to act up already.

Cellists, on the other hand, Thompson says, are more grounded than violinists — much like Carl, whose cancer, he explains, has given him a perspective on life: He doesn’t have time for the bickering. In fact, Thompson calls the cellist the quarterback of the string quartet.

THOMPSON: “Cellists tend to be controlling without seeming like they’re controlling. They’re driving the harmonies because they’re playing the lowest notes. They are the rhythmic motor, controlling the tempi, controlling the balances. I’ve always said, if you want to have a successful string quartet, first thing you need to look for is a great cellist.”

Thompson says he grants playwright Michael Hollinger some dramatic license for all the drama in Opus. (Hollinger wrote Circle’s hit comedy last season, Incorruptible.) The playwright has consciously cranked up the tension with the White House concert looming. Otherwise, the musicians would normally have spent weeks, even months, auditioning people. And the play does end with a violent, highly dramatic gesture — one that doesn’t seem entirely necessary, given that the drama’s central issues have been more or less resolved.

Still, Thompson says, for the most part, Hollinger has just condensed and heightened the conflicts that can actually trouble a high-performing chamber group.  In this comic melodrama, those conflicts arise over everything from preparing coffee to psychological problems and whether Ludwig van Beethoven in one of his great, last quartets (Opus 131) should have added the notation poco crescendo – meaning, “growing a little louder.”

Even here, Hollinger demonstrates that ultimately what’s at stake in his play isn’t whether Lazara will continue to make great music but the musicians’ decision-making, their relationship to each other and to their special sound. Can this marriage be saved?

CARL: [interrupting rehearsal] Woah, woah, woah.

ELLIOT: What now?

CARL: There’s no crescendo there.

ALAN: Poco crescendo.

CARL: There isn’t any — poco or otherwise.

ELLIOT: Well, there should be.


ALAN: It parallels bar 16.

CARL: Except bar 16 has a poco crescendo.

ELLIOT: So it’s an echo.

CARL: An echo?

ALAN: Setting up bar 16.

CARL: Since when does an echo precede the sound itself?

Elias Taylorson as Elliot and Mark Shrum as Dorian (l to r) with a matched-set of Lazara viola and violin.

Playing in a string quartet is much more democratic than playing in a symphony orchestra. Thompson believes chamber music is the highest form of music-making because it calls on so much, demands such undivided attention, from each string player. Which also means it can be more confrontational. There’s no mediator, no decision-maker in the conductor. The players must face the music — and each other.

THOMPSON: “String quartet is much more gloves-off and personal. And to find four people of a like mind who feel the same way about music — it’s very, very rare.”

Indeed, he says, there’s a legend that the members of one famous quartet fly separately to their concerts. They keep any personal contact to a minimum. Even the Mimir Festival, Thompson notes, has an unwritten rule: All debates must be finished in less than a minute.

Both of these maneuvers are attempts to wrestle with the central paradox of a successful chamber group like the Lazara Quartet. Its achievement is dependent on the dynamic tensions among the members, their abilities to compensate, to anticipate each other — and to fuse their sensibilities and talents into a single sound. Yet those same tensions, that same intimate knowledge of each other, can cause the group to blow apart.

THOMPSON: “Once in a while, you’ll hear an Emerson Quartet or a Guarneri Quartet, and there’s something so seamless and so captivating about it that you can’t imagine that they’d have any personal problems. But at the same time [laughs], you realize that they’re humans – and humans have issues with each other.”

The Circle production is a handsome one, given a warm, wood-paneled set by designer Clare Floyd deVries. It’s also well-cast, although on opening night, the actors tended to hit the dramatics and the jokes harder than they need to (try it poco diminuendo, as it were, though admittedly, Elliot (Taylorson) is supposed to be overbearing and flamboyant). Engaging and intelligent, not really high-flown or highbrow, Opus doesn’t require an in-depth knowledge of classical music to enjoy. Hollinger has made sure the play is accessible by giving his musicians an entertaining veneer of back-and-forth wisecracks, and Carl, the down-to-earth family man, is something of our stand-in.

Think of it as The Young Person’s Guide to the String Quartet with Laughs and Dramatic Outbursts.

Image of Mimir from TCU Magazine.

  • kent

    but do they play the instruments?

  • Sorry. The radio version doesn’t address that because it would take too long to explain. But if you read the online version, you’ll see I answer your question.