American String Quartet violist Daniel Avshalomov reports from Aspen, where he and his colleagues perform Janácek, Haydn, Korngold and Brahms against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains


From Crested Butte, Colorado to Aspen is a ten-minute flight, a three-hour drive or an exhilarating all-day mountain hike. But careful readers will recall that when the American String Quartet gets on the road they don’t do things by halves: Crested Butte to Aspen by way of Minnesota and China, and never mind the trans-Pacific jetlag and 7,000-foot elevation gain!

Why go to all the trouble, some may ask? Well, there’s that first breath of sweet, invisible Rocky Mountain air and also our history: we have performed and taught at the Aspen Music Festival every summer since 1974, and some of us were students there before that. So we have seen the growth of both the town and the festival, from the hip but unselfconscious mountain village to Aspen à la Prada; from Juilliard West to a cultural juggernaut replete with superstar conductors and soloists dropping out of the sky all summer long. I remember vividly the argument that the Festival really didn’t need a second (chamber) orchestra. That was in 1969. Now there are four full orchestras and several specialist ensembles as well.

Yet besides its magical setting, for us the appeal of Aspen is seeing so many of our best friends and colleagues – people who, like us, otherwise tour all season – in one place for days or weeks at a time. And the first one we saw was violist James Dunham, who has joined us on stage all over the country. One of our favourite fifth wheels, James is a quartetnik (ex-Sequoia, ex-Cleveland), so he knows the ensemble dynamic as only a veteran can. He’s also a terrific musician and a very witty fellow – and the list goes on. It is always salutary for our violinist Peter Winograd to play with someone taller than he is, and similarly good for me to have a sound like that alongside. Together we gang-tackled the Brahms F major Quintet, which came together quickly not only because it had to but because it could.

The Brahms concluded a programme that began with one of the perfect Haydn quartets – the F major op.77 no.2. Each movement is a gem, and thanks to the master’s thematic genius all four are linked. (Haydn later wrote a violin and piano sonata of this quartet, omitting the Menuetto and awarding at least some of the melodies to the keyboard. A few years ago I performed a viola version of the piece and came away with even more respect for my colleague Peter). In the middle came Janá?ek’s String Quartet no.1, based on Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata, a turgid tale of marital strife. We sometimes present the work in dismantled form to demonstrate the meaning of key components and to highlight the way certain musical phrases relate to the text. In Aspen we played it straight, however. But we also played it with the right ending. Although Janá?ek originally wrote a diminuendo at the end of the piece (suggesting that the story's mortally wounded wife expires as she forgives her husband for stabbing her), he immediately changed his mind after the premiere. Since it is clear from Tolstoy that the wife does no such thing, a defiant crescendo announces her response to her husband’s plea. Interestingly Milan Skampa, who edited both Janá?ek quartets, admits that the composer wanted the loud ending, but nevertheless he (Skampa) chose to publish the diminuendo, with no mention of the revision in the parts. It peeps out in a single sentence in the lengthy introduction.

Our next collaboration had been a long-awaited one. American String Quartet violinist Laurie Carney has performed a lot of repertoire with the miraculous pianist Anton Nel, and delights in both his company and his music making. Of course the rest of us have heard him play and we all wanted to work with him, but for summer after summer our schedules just wouldn't cooperate. In August fortune smiled: we were in Aspen when he was, and there was Korngold on the stands. Laurie and Anton had played the work in an all-volunteer group some years before, and they were patient with the rest of us who had only one Korngold under our belts. Our rehearsals were hilarious but efficient, and everyone saved their best for the concert.

If the time we had on stage were not reward enough, we celebrated with drinks and dinner while watching the sun sink behind the Rockies.