Strings Magazine: How to Match Instruments in a Chamber Group

February 2010
by Patrick Sullivan

When a Strad just isn't good enough. The pleasures and perils of adding a new instrument to a quartet

They are legendary instruments—four splendid Strads once owned by Italy's most celebrated virtuoso and played together for decades by one of America's most acclaimed string quartets. But when the Paganini quartet was loaned to cellist Paul Katz and his companions in the Cleveland Quartet, the instruments' new custodians found themselves in a quandary.

"We didn't feel they matched well," recalls Katz, a Cleveland Quartet founding member. "James Dugan was playing the Paganini viola. But it's actually a very soprano instrument—it almost sounds like a third violin."

Dugan's own instrument, a Gaspar da Salè, had a very dark sound. "The quartet decided that the Gaspar worked better," Katz says. "So he played most of his concerts using that instead of the Strad."

After 26 years of performances, the Cleveland Quartet disbanded in 1995. But for Katz, who now teaches at the New England Conservatory, that encounter 18 years ago with the Paganini Strads stands as a vivid example of the pleasures and perils of adding new instruments to a string quartet. When a Strad just isn't good enough. The pleasures and perils of adding a new instrument to a string quartet. "Sometimes one person changing an instrument can markedly improve a quartet," he says.

But it's also one of most emotional decisions a musician may face. "When a player picks an instrument, it's so personal that it is like picking a spouse or a partner," Katz says. "A cliche, I know, but it's really, really true."

Fierce passions can be aroused when a new instrument joins a quartet's delicately balanced ecosystem. Controversy over the allegedly clandestine purchase of a half-million-dollar violin reportedly contributed to the Audubon String Quartet's high-profile meltdown 10 years ago. The Audubon fired its first violinist, David Erlich, who then successfully sued the quartet for his portion of the ensemble's worth.


"New instruments are definitely a point of contention sometimes because it's such a hard thing to gel your individual needs with the needs of the group," says Tom Stone, second violinist with the San Franciscobased Cypress String Quartet. "But adding a new instrument is a great and wonderful prospect," Stone continues. "That's partly because it affirms that we're not doing this just because we love the violin or the cello—we're doing it because we love the music.

Two years ago, an anonymous patron loaned a 1701 Hieronymous Amati II to Cypress cellist Jennifer Kloetzel. "It liberated her voice, allowing her to do incredibly gorgeous things," Stone says. But the cello, like every new instrument Cypress has brought on board, also required the quartetto make adjustments.

To ease such transitions, Cypress sends its members—and trusted friends—out into the hall to hear how the instrument sounds where it matters most. "The hardest thing about adjusting to a new instrument is reconciling what you're hearing under your ear with what the audience is actually hearing," Stone says. "They can be very different."

Putting the instrument into the hands of another musician whose playing you know can be helpful. When Kloetzel was adjusting to her cello, she invited a fellow cellist to play the instrument. "She heard how her cello was projecting into the hall,"Stone says. "It's one thing for a quartet member to tell her that she can play more softly. It's another thing for her to hear it herself."

Recording is also useful. "We record to one of our computers with a stereo microphone in the room and then listen back," Stone explains. "We take it with a grain of salt because these are not top-quality recordings, but they are helpful. It reveals a lot about the balance of the voices."

The most important tool, however, may be the right attitude. "When Ethan [Filner] was looking for the viola that he plays now,there were some instruments he thought were a good match for him that wouldn't work for the quartet," Stone says. "But it wasn't upsetting, because he realized we had his best interests at heart. He didn't want to have an instrument that wouldn't work for the group."

Just don't go too far in that direction, cautions celebrated violin maker Sam Zygmuntovich, whose epic effort to build a new instrument for Emerson Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker was chronicled in the 2007 book The Violin Maker. The Brooklyn luthier urges musicians to make their own needs a high priority.

"It's not like I would say, 'To hell with your band mates,'" Zygmuntovich says. "But ideally, the first step is that you, as an individual, should go for something that is fully expressive."

When musicians in one quartet Zygmuntovich works with introduce a new instrument, they take the blindfold-test approach. "They don't tell anyone else what they're playing and just see how [the listeners] react," he says.

"I think the single most important factor is, does the instrument help the musician make music?" Zygmuntovich says. "A quartet is like any other relationship. And a really healthy relationship helps individuals be more expressive and fully actualized."