For the past 10 years, Canadian violinist Martin Beaver has been a member of the venerable Tokyo String Quartet. That may sound like a lengthy tenure, but he's actually the chamber group's newest member – the fifth in a line of first violinists in the quartet's four-decade history.
But in mid-April it was announced that Beaver would also be last of the quartet's first violinists. The group has decided to disband at the end of the 2012-13 season.
"I've played about 1,000 concerts with the quartet," Beaver said recently from his home near New York. "It's been a great honour to be able to at this level play all over the world. Quartet playing is fraught with ups and downs – no pun intended – both personally and professionally. But that's the sacrifice you make to play this great repertoire."
The Tokyo Quartet dates back to 1969, when four young Japanese musicians studying at the Juilliard School decided to form a professional string quartet. Today, it seems the group – which has been based in New Haven, Conn., since 1977 – is succumbing to its own seasoned age.
Last November, the two oldest members of the quartet – second violinist Kikuei Ikeda and violist Kazuhide Isomura (the last original member) – announced they'd both be retiring at the end of 2012-13. The remaining players, Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith, said they intended to replace the retiring members with new people and carry on. They called on string players to step forward, and even instituted an ad-hoc audition process.
So the announcement that the Tokyos will pack it in has come as a shock to the classical-music world. "Martin and Clive seemed convinced they would be able to go forward," said Jennifer Taylor, artistic producer of Music Toronto, which has presented the ensemble 44 times since 1975. "So I was surprised – but I knew it would be very difficult to recreate the quartet."
"We did have many people express interest," Beaver explained. "Clive and I decided to try as many people as possible, and we did try out quite a few violinists and violists, reading through quartets and even playing informal concerts."
But according to Beaver, the prospect of replacing half the quartet at the same time turned out to be too daunting a challenge.
"Under the best of circumstances, if you find people who would be great, it takes a long time to have a cohesive feel as a string quartet. Even for just one new member, it can take about five years to get someone really integrated into a quartet."
Beaver himself joined the quartet in 2002, at the age of 34. His appointment was unexpected – at the time, he was not especially well-known internationally as a chamber musician. Violinist Pinchas Zukerman (conductor of Ottawa's National Arts Centre Orchestra) and Taylor were widely credited with convincing the Tokyo Quartet to try him out.
Born in Winnipeg and raised in Hamilton, Beaver studied at Toronto's Royal Conservatory of Music before heading off to Indiana University for advanced instruction. He isn't the only Canadian to play first violin with the Tokyos. Toronto-born Peter Oundjian – currently the conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra – held the chair from 1981 to 1994.
Beaver's decade with the globetrotting quartet has left him with plenty of memories. He fondly recalled his Carnegie Hall debut, in his first season with the group, when he played with the renowned Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha.
As the quartet prepares for its final season, he said, 2012-13 will be pretty much business as usual. (Though Yale University, where the Tokyo players all teach, will present a special tribute concert with guest artists in October at Carnegie Hall, and will also play host to the group's final concert in June 2013.)
The dissolution of the quartet also means an end to Beaver's job at Yale. He and Greensmith will both be moving to the West Coast in September 2013 to teach at The Colburn School in Los Angeles.
As for his artistic life post-Tokyo Quartet, Beaver said he isn't yet sure what he'll do.
"Clive and I might form another quartet," he mused, "or some other kind of ensemble. And I'd be happy to play concertos if orchestras want to hire me. I'm just starting to think about it now and the possibilities are endless. But frankly, the idea of a little downtime is also appealing."
Special to The Globe and Mail