Strings Attached

Matthew Miller
January 01, 2000

For classical music enthusiasts, a string quartet recital is not a concert; it's a conversation. An intimate conversation between two violins, a viola, andwa cello. Goethe once wrote of the experience: "You listen to four sensible persons conversing, you profit from their discourse, and you get to know the peculiar properties of their several instruments."

close up of hands playing violins
M. Scott Johnson and Kate Parizek, Penn State Digital Photography Studio

It might be said that all music involving more than one person is conversation, a personal exchange of styles and interpretations. But perhaps with the string quartet this give-and-take is more noticeable: the second violin supporting the melody of the first violin, while providing a bridge between the first violin and the viola; the viola providing a bridge between second violin and cello; the cello supporting the viola.

For graduate students, coming and going, an extended conversation can be a luxury. That's why Lyle Merriman, former director of Penn State's School of Music, established the graduate student quartet program. For two years, four carefully chosen students are provided with assistantships and the chance to play together and see how their conversation develops.

The first incarnation of Merriman's vision, the Serendipity String Quartet, began playing together in September 1998 and won second place in the Performance Option of the Penn State Graduate Exhibition this past March.

Never mind that each member of the quartet was auditioned carefully, their personalities considered as closely as their playing, to try to determine if they would get along. Serendipity, they named themselves. In their minds, coming together seemed like luck.

Which seems a fair enough assessment when you consider who they are: There's first violinist Lin He, who began playing at age five but had never been in the United States before coming to University Park. Second violinist Emily Smeltzer grew up less than an hour away, in Hollidaysburg, but had been smitten with New York and planned on moving there until she received the assistantship offer. Violist Nesrine Balbeisi was born in Jordan and resides in Virginia, but she was the one most familiar with Penn State's program, having been the only one to study as an undergraduate here. And cellist Brian Towndrow, a Texan without a drawl, came to Penn State to build on the extensive chamber music experience he received as a student at Baylor University.

The group began playing together soon after its members arrived on campus, practicing five to six hours a week. Initial anxieties—only natural, surely, for musicians committing to two years with complete strangers—passed quickly. "I wanted my skills to match those of the others," says Balbeisi. "I didn't want to be an impediment. That was what I worried about at first, but it didn't take very long for me to feel comfortable."

For He, adjusting to life in the United States was the hard part. He had never turned on a computer, let alone used one. He couldn't type, and had little confidence in his English. Most of all, he felt a desperate homesickness.

"At first, I just wanted to go back to China," He says. "I was so, so lonely. The quartet members helped me through this. They would ask me to dinner, and take me for drives to show me the area. That really meant a lot to me."

A string quartet is balanced, in theory, so that one member is not the star. In reality, many people perceive the first violinist to be the leader of the group. Through the late 1700s, the first violin did have the leading role, the other instruments serving merely as accompaniment. But beginning in the early 1800s quartets were written so that each instrument had a different part and an equally important role.

And yet: The perception of the first violinist as star persists. He certainly could play the part: To come to Penn State he left a position in the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Here, he is concertmaster of both the Penn State Philharmonic and Chamber orchestras. At the Graduate Exhibition, in addition to his award with the quartet, He won first prize for a duet performance with pianist Lia Jensen.

He is clearly uncomfortable with being singled out, however, not only because he is humble but because he really knows classical music, as both performer and listener. Towndrow calls him a "walking discography" for his ability to list the best recordings of nearly any piece of classical music. ("Maybe I am just a little too crazy about classical music," He says with a big smile.) His passion also means that he knows how a quartet should function—and understands that to designate one player the leader is not only inaccurate but ludicrous.

"Almost everywhere in the world, people think the second violinist is not as important as the first," says He. "That is so wrong. Both of you share the same quartet. The second violinist has it even harder, because she has to make her decisions based on what I do, not just on what she wants to do."

"I usually don't have the melody," says second violinist Smeltzer. "I have to listen to what Lin does, and see how I can support that musically. But I think we help each other out, and give each other suggestions."

In an orchestra, sections of instruments support each other in much the same way. When the violins are emphasized, the other instruments are played so that their sound accents the violins. But an orchestra has a conductor to help it along. The quartet members must make those decisions by listening. "I've found that when I'm playing with the orchestra, I listen better now that I've played a lot with a quartet," says Smeltzer.

The group had worked and performed for more than five months when the members decided to enter the Graduate Exhibition. The piece they chose, Beethoven's String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18, No. 4, was one they wanted to improve. "You look for venues for performance," Towndrow explains. "You always want a place where you can play for an audience. It's like a rock band trying to find gigs."

Actually, finding gigs hasn't been a problem as the quartet has played a full slate, from conventional recitals to recruiting performances at high schools around the state. Even so, Towndrow notes, the quartet is "an added luxury," not the primary focus of its members' degree programs. Each member must also practice and perform as a soloist, play with the University orchestra, and still make time for classes. Towndrow and Balbeisi also perform with community orchestras.

"Balancing the schedule isn't a problem," says Balbeisi. "But I sometimes wonder how important it is that I sit in a class on the history of Baroque music. In terms of my professional career, it's all about how well you play or how well you don't. I wish I could devote more time to that than to classes."

"If you have a concert that night and a paper due the next day," He says, "it will drive you crazy." Still, He plans to pursue a doctorate after finishing with the present craziness, and so does Towndrow. Smeltzer is still in love with the Big Apple, and would like to try her hand at freelancing there, or perhaps in Nashville. Only Balbeisi would like to make a career of chamber music.

Different paths, yes, before and after their coming together, but each member speaks of how important the support and friendship of the other quartet members have been, both musically and personally. Says Towndrow: "There's probably nothing we wouldn't do for each other. We're committed to making ourselves the best players we can be. And we know we can call upon each other not just as musicians but as friends."

Do they wish they could extend the conversation, musically and personally, beyond the two years they will spend together? He, for one, says he's glad for the two-year musical limit: longer than that, he says, could jeopardize the friendship.

"It happens all the time with the big-name quartets," he says. "It has to happen eventually. They spend so much time together, they get to know each other too well. Then they start to hate each other personally. They can still play together, but can't interact on a personal basis.

"But I think we'll be friends for a long time. These are the best friends I have here. I love them. They have helped me through a lot."

Lin He, Emily J. Smeltzer, and Brian C. Towndrow are graduate students in the School of Music. Their adviser is Kim Cook, associate professor in the College of Arts and Architecture, 233 Music Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-7984. Violist Nesrine I. Balbeisi left Penn State and the Quartet shortly after this article was written. Her replacement, Melissa Becker, is a graduate student in music theory. Work by photographers M. Scott Johnson and Kate Parizek of the Digital Photography Studio was supported in part by The Eastman Kodak Company and Calumet Photographic Inc.

Last Updated January 01, 2000