Free Series In 14th Year
By Rich McManus
Photos by Ernie Branson
On the Front Page...
There can't be many workplaces in the world where, eight to 10 times a year, a world-class string quartet entertains for free during the lunch hour, playing thematically coherent programs of classical music masterworks in an acoustically decent and capacious hall, introduced by a friendly cellist who goes out of his way to make listeners feel exactly like he does as if he's playing for friends in his living room.
But that's precisely the fringe benefit NIH'ers have enjoyed in Masur Auditorium since 1988, when the Merck Company Foundation began sponsorship of a series by the Manchester String Quartet. The MSQ, all of whose members also play in the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO), is essentially an NIH-specific entity they perform rarely in any other venue. Named, on the spur of the moment, after the street on which one of their members lived (Granite Creek Lane and Hobart Street flunked the ear test), the MSQ exists almost solely for the listening pleasure of NIH employees. And that suits the members just fine.
"We're the envy of all of our colleagues in the NSO," says Glenn Garlick, cellist and founding member of the MSQ, along with first violinist Hyun-Woo Kim. "Having a program of your own is a hard situation to find I appreciate it every time I think about it."
The MSQ began in the early eighties when Garlick, who joined the NSO in 1980, began playing around town with Kim and two other orchestra members, Holly Hamilton and Lynn Edelson Levine. "The four of us played together in various places, including some house concerts, and we didn't need any name. We sounded pretty good together, so we stayed at it. After one of the shows, we were approached by someone who ran a music series downtown," Garlick recalls. "He asked us to play, and asked us our name. We quickly huddled in a corner and searched for a name. Holly lived on Manchester Rd., and that sounded better than the others, so we picked it. We were going to use it for awhile then decide if we wanted to keep it. Within 2 years, we had played enough, and had been reviewed enough, that it was too late to change."
What few personnel changes there have been over the years "have been largely child-inspired," Garlick recounts. While the Chicago Symphony claimed one violinist and the San Francisco Symphony recruited a violist, four other MSQ members "loved the quartet but had kids and couldn't fit everything into their schedules it was too much to juggle." Today's lineup has been stable for more than 5 years, and includes, in addition to Garlick and Kim, violinist Marissa Regni and violist Daniel Foster.
As NSO musicians, they are employed full-time. This means 20 hours a week with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center their practice and performance site and an equal amount of time in private preparation, Garlick explains. Many orchestra members are also involved in outreach and teaching programs; some are, like Garlick (who is also a lawyer and ex-Marine gunnery sergeant), adjunct faculty at the University of Maryland.
For the MSQ, a typical NIH performance season begins in early summer, when the quartet meets to decide on a theme. "It's a very democratic process," Garlick says. "The string quartet is the last true democracy." For 2002-2003, members adopted "Dawn of the String Quartet" as their topic. They invented a mythological character Jacob Andreas (a conjoining of the names of two famed instrument-makers of antiquity) and gave him a 100-year lifespan in the cradle of the string quartet, Vienna, Austria. "We gave him a birth date of 1781 and selected pieces he would have heard in Vienna. We also made him a member of a publishing family, so that he would have had access to the compositions we picked."
One MSQ season was devoted solely to Mozart ("He wrote 10 string quartets in his last years of life, and we wanted to do all of them," says Garlick. "These were his golden years the most wonderful music he wrote.") and another coincided with Merck's 100th year as a company, so MSQ picked a pair of quartets for each show, each separated by 100 years. The colorful posters announcing these MSQ seasons have themselves become collectors' items; all are the work of Connecticut graphic artist Peter Good, who so admires the musicians that he not only has frozen his design fee at the first year's rate, but also travels to Bethesda to see the quartet about once a year, reports Garlick.
Although the quartet occasionally takes requests for the music of more difficult composers such as Alban Berg, Leos Janocek and Béla Bartók, the musicians generally "try to avoid the really spiky programs," said Garlick. "The NIH audience is fully up to that kind of music they have their concentration there when they come in but we're conscious of the fact that it's the lunch hour, and most people want to relax."
Attendance at the shows, which begin promptly at 12:30 p.m. with a brief introduction of the program by Garlick (who also produces color brochures explaining the music for every performance), has climbed steadily over the years. "For a long time we were one of those well-kept secrets," says Garlick. "We started in the days before email, when there wasn't a good way to advertise. But with email, the crowds began to pick up."
Sometimes, the material on a given program will attract listeners. Oddly enough, beautiful weather lures larger audiences indoors; Garlick speculates that it's easier for employees to walk to Bldg. 10 on sunny days. He calculates attendance by how many of his flyers disappear at each performance. He used to get away with printing 300 or so, but the press run has jumped to about 450.
It's perfectly okay with the quartet if people come and go during a performance, Garlick says; "We've never minded people leaving they may have a test tube boiling over." But he is always amazed at the courtesy and learnedness of the audience. "Oh yes, very much so. They are musically sophisticated. People will come up to us afterwards and say, 'I've never played that particular quartet,' and we'll say 'Whoa!' Some know (our repertoire) intimately. A whole bunch know the music very well, and many have heard us play it before. Some ask us for the best available recordings of a particular piece."
MSQ shows used to be routinely recorded for later broadcast on public radio, Garlick says. "There was an engineer with two microphones on poles, and he would tape every show. At the end of the season, we would pick six or eight for broadcast on the radio. But we finally had to put the squash on that. It was too inhibiting. We take (musical) risks, and the mics made us too careful. It robbed the joy of it, and was affecting the quality of our performance."
Garlick says the MSQ is just as happy to play for 100 people as a full house. "It's like walking out into your living room now for us," he says. "I wish we could take this audience to other shows. They're so appreciative and such great fun...Anybody would love to play at NIH."
To prepare for their NIH performances, the quartet meets, usually at the Kennedy Center, for half a dozen practice sessions, even for material the musicians know well. A final run-through takes place in Masur just before each concert. "Practices last 2 ½ to 3 hours each," Garlick said, "and even longer if we're doing something by someone like Bartók. By the end of the last one, we're all pretty comfortable with the piece."
Garlick says the series will continue as long as Merck supports it. "We're willing to play as long as there's interest there. We've become an important part of peoples' lives (at NIH). And for us it's very important. It's wonderful. We think of our NIH audience not just as the 400 people at a given show, but also another 500 people who come occasionally."
In addition to NIH'ers, the audience typically includes a large contingent from a nearby retirement home, who come early and claim the best seats, and a smattering of Clinical Center patients, some requiring wheelchairs and IV poles. Garlick says they're all just one big audience, but allows "it feels nice to us to provide escape from worries or concerns."
While the MSQ has played at such venues as the Phillips Collection, the Terrace Theater, the University of Maryland, and has even premiered composer Jon Deak's string quartet "The Headless Horseman of Sleepy Hollow" with the NSO under Mstislav Rostropovich (a performance that was commissioned by Merck in celebration of its 100th anniversary), NIH remains "where we really live," Garlick says.
Those wishing to indulge in the MSQ experience at NIH are invited to attend one of the four remaining performances on this season's schedule Feb. 3, Mar. 31, Apr. 28 and May 19. For more information about the series, or for reasonable accommodation, contact Sharon Greenwell, 496-4713.
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