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Anniversary of note

Esterhazy String Quartet marks 40th year with Black History Month concert and Samuel Adler premiere

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  • Story by Nancy Moen
  • Photo by Carole Patterson
  • Published: Feb. 13, 2009
MU's Esterhazy String Quartet

MU's Esterhazy String Quartet ¿ Eva Szekely, Susan Jensen, Leslie Perna and Darry Dolezal ¿ performs A Celebration of African-American Music Feb. 16.

In a faraway palace long, long ago, a royal Esterhazy prince invited guests to experience the new music of composer Franz Josef Haydn (1732-1809). That 18th-century Austrian tradition continues in Mizzou’s School of Music with the Esterhazy String Quartet.

The distinguished faculty ensemble in residence — named to honor the European aristocrats who were patrons of the arts — will mark its 40th anniversary with two public performances of new and seldom-heard music and a composer’s lecture.

All three events will be held in the MU Fine Arts Building’s Whitmore Recital Hall.

Members of the Esterhazy Quartet are Eva Szekely and Susan Jensen, violinists, Leslie Perna, violist, and Darry Dolezal, cello.

Featuring African-American composers

In conjunction with Black History Month, the quartet's Feb. 16 concert A Celebration of African-American Music will highlight works of four black composers.

‘We hope to make this an ongoing project: researching, collecting and playing works from the incredibly rich yet woefully underplayed output of African-American composers.’
—Darry Dolezal

The Esterhazy group’s interest in lesser-known composers led to the program of music by 20th-century composers William Grant Still — considered the dean of African-American composers — George Walker, David Baker and Scott Joplin.

Still (1895-1978) is the first African-American to write a symphony performed by a leading orchestra. He was also a successful arranger of popular music and music for film. His blend of musical styles shows influences of European classical form and elements of his cultural heritage.

Featured pieces will include Still’s “Panamanian Dances,” Walker’s “Lyric for Strings,” a selection of Joplin rags and "Pastorale" from Baker's cantata "Black America: To The Memory of Martin Luther King Jr." A $5 donation is requested for the 8 p.m. performance.

A world premiere

One of the world’s foremost living composers — Samuel Adler — will attend the April 6 world premiere of his new piece commissioned by and dedicated to the Esterhazy Quartet.

Adler, who wrote “String Quartet No. 9” for the 40th anniversary, is a 2008 inductee into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. A $5 donation is requested for the 8 p.m. performance. 

With the Esterhazy Quartet providing live demonstrations, Adler also will deliver a public lecture at 3 p.m. on April 7 to discuss the process of writing a commission. In a related academic activity, Adler will conduct a master class for School of Music composition students, who will have the opportunity to perform their original works for him and hear his comments.

The Grimshaw Distinguished College Lecture Series in the Humanities and Social Sciences provided funding for the Adler events. 

Musical ambassador

As a musical ambassador for MU, the Esterhazy Quartet has been performing for national and international audiences for decades.

Cellist Carleton Spotts, now a professor emeritus, founded the group in 1968. “Chamber music was very important to me,” he says, “and it’s the responsibility of a university to promote such things.”

Spotts played cello with the original faculty group that included Eugene Gratovich and Ruth Melcher Allen (now deceased), violinist, and Ulrich Dannemann, violist. Other performers through the four decades were Carolyn Kenneson, Holly Stern, Sandy Strenger, Lowell Adams, Kate Hamilton and John McLeod.

One performance lingers in Spotts’s memory as a once-in-a-lifetime experience — an invitation to play in Eisenstadt, Austria, at the palace where Haydn composed and directed musical entertainment for the Esterhazy royal dynasty.

Critical acclaim

The Esterhazy Quartet is widely recognized for its commitment to performing the music of our time, especially modern music of the Americas. It maintains one of the largest collections of Latin American string quartets in the United States and is responsible for the commissions and world premieres of many new American string quartets.

The quartet has been featured repeatedly on National Public Radio broadcasts such as “Hear America First” and the “Quartessence” series. The ensemble has recorded six albums, including two that have been reissued, and has three recording projects in progress.

Critics internationally have praised the ensemble for its velvet tone, rhythmic inventiveness, humor and intelligent interpretation of music.

“Our international connections are rich,” says Szekely, senior member of the quartet who has played with the group for more than 30 years. “It’s been very satisfying and fulfilling. Esterhazy established a connection with Brazil.”

Spotts refers to succeeding generations of students as the school’s great “grandstudents.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012