Notebook: Takács Quartet attracts an orchestral music newcomer

By Carlina Duan, Daily Community Culture Editor
Published April 17, 2013

Let me be clear: I don’t play the violin. But I flirted with the idea of becoming a music conductor for about a week in the sixth grade, when the boy I had a crush on strutted to the front of our orchestra class, slipped off his shoes and began whisking around a pencil, conducting our class to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme song. Sockless. I thought he was hot stuff.

I don’t play the violin, but occasionally, I fall in love with orchestral music, and mostly with conductors. I love the way that everything comes together beneath one tip of the baton — the cellos, with their booming granddaddy voices; the violins, with their smirking, high-pitched glee. The violas, who are often overlooked but are still appreciated wholesomely — their strings humming out a buttery tenor. In the moment right before an orchestra begins playing, I always suck in a sharp breath of air, never released until that first flip of the conductor’s hand. Conductors make me feel safe. I watch their fingers prancing around during orchestra concerts, and I feel as if I have direction, as if I know where I’m going in this concert, with my back flopped against the seat and my breathless lungs huffing.

That’s why, when my friend Heather invited me to the Takács Quartet concert in Rackham Auditorium on April 12, I was pretty hype. Music! Classical music! I could be classy! Probably there would be very classily dressed men there! Probably the classiest person would be the conductor! Yeah!

Here bounces in my ignorance. After four years of playing the violin, I dropped the lessons as soon as I hit high school. My orchestra experiences consisted of: A) Mimicking a shaky vibrato by flapping my wrist around the fastest as I could and B) doodling bouquets of flowers all over my sheet music, so by the time we performed our annual Spring Concert, I couldn’t read the notes beneath a layer of graphite blossoms and I paused in the middle of the concert, sneakily reaching for an eraser. Needless to say, orchestra was not a good time in my life.

So, how was I supposed to know that in a quartet, there’s no conductor?! No classy black suit-clad man or woman to watch. I’d have to watch the instruments, which was, OK, fine, but past experiences at middle-school orchestra concerts had told me that there wasn’t going to be much to watch. Just bows streaking across a few strings.

I hid my disappointment by reading the program. The Takács Quartet, formed in 1975 in Budapest by four founding members — only one of whom still remains, Károly Schranz, on the violin. The remaining three members, Edward Dusinberre on the violin, Geraldine Walther on the viola and András Fejér on the cello, now currently comprise the group, which has won a number of prestigious awards since its creation, including the Order of Merit Commander’s Cross by the president of the Republic of Hungary.

On Friday, the quartet met the Rackham stage with the grace of those familiar to a lit-up stage. They bowed, slowly, then sat down on simple, cream-colored seats. In the audience, muffled coughs blurted. Then, silence.

No conductor, yet the quartet members all began at the same time, with a fluidness to their bodies and their bows, as if being pulled together by the same wire. The notes rippled from their instruments in haunting, spiraling tones. Midway through the first piece (Franz Joseph Hayden’s No. 63 in B-flat Major, Op. 76, No. 4), I marveled at the quartet’s motion. They weren’t rising off their seats, but they weren’t still, either. There seemed to be a kind of secret dance alive in their elbows, their hands, their backs: A dance that manifested itself in quick flicks of the wrist; a whirring of the torso; a resonant, almost holy-looking reverence on the face.

There was art in their bodywork as much as there existed art in each musical note, a kind of art that inhabits the imaginative space. Every time the music would leap forward in a swell of crescendo and rumbling notes, the quartet would also seem to puff up in huge and loud movements. Their actions mimicked in the music. I wasn’t craving a conductor anymore. These guys were it. Watching them was almost more fascinating than my previous obsession with watching a conductor’s direction.

As the concert pulsed through the night, Britten’s String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 reminded me, at times, of salt shakers spreading over vegetables; and at other times, of the hum and lull of water waves. The last piece, Beethoven’s String Quartet in c-sharp minor, Op. 131, tapped my feet hard on the concert floors and made my legs swoon. The quartet’s synchrony and vibrant motion allowed me to recognize classical music’s ability to reveal the imaginative. As an audience member who rarely listens to Beethoven or Hayden, let alone understands all the complicated factors that make up a “good” performance, I left the show in awe.

In the eighth grade, my last year of playing in an orchestra, I often dreaded performances because I didn’t think we were playing anything “important,” and that our orchestra teacher, the conductor, had a bigger role to play. Looking back, those performances were incredibly important opportunities to create art — through connection with music in bodily, imaginatively and emotionally charged ways — on the stage.