After 43 years of touring, recording and teaching, the Tokyo String Quartet is calling it a day. Their current season, a farewell tour of North America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere, will find them performing one last time for Seattle fans on Wednesday at Meany Hall.
The group’s older members say increasing complications with U.S. customs (all four musicians travel with Stradivarius instruments on loan from the Nippon Music Foundation) are behind the case for quitting. But there is also a musical reason this internationally beloved and sublime ensemble, formed in 1969 at the Juilliard School — its founding members having earlier attended the Toho Gakuen School of Music in Tokyo — is disbanding.
“We want to go out while we’re still at our peak,” says Kikuei Ikeda, second violin for the group, which has played more than 100 concerts each year. “Once you begin regressing, it happens very rapidly. We didn’t want to face that.”
Ikeda, 65, joined the Tokyo String Quartet in 1974 (replacing original second violin Yoshiko Nakura). Violist Kazuhide Isomura, 67, is the sole founding musician left.
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After forming at Juilliard, the group’s Isomura, Nakura and fellow founders Koichiro Harada (first violin) and Sadao Harada (cello) won international competitions and a recording contract. Albums, awards and Grammy nominations piled up over the years, and critics have long lavished praise — albeit with a mournful tone of late, as those final dates approach.
“I don’t know what to expect at that last concert, actually,” says Ikeda. “I know I will be quite emotional.”
Ikeda says the Tokyo String Quartet, with four Japanese musicians playing Western classical fare, was initially met with confusion in America.
“There were many questions. ‘Why are you playing Western music rather than your own music?’ I had to tell each person we were taught Western classical music in school. There was a gradual acceptance, but for a few years there was doubt. It was thought we lacked emotional depth. I don’t think people define Asian musicians like that anymore.”
If, back then, the group’s members were pioneers in respect to race and repertoire, it is hardly novel today to see Asian soloists and ensemble players performing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven in concert halls.
“There are so many Asian players now because of the family,” says Ikeda. “Parents still have rather strong power over children. It’s very important with string instruments to start early. I teach at Yale, and more and more the percentage of Asian music students is increasing.”
That trend reversed itself in the Tokyo String Quartet. Koichiro Harada left in 1981, succeeded by Toronto-born Peter Oundjian on first violin, who stayed for 14 years. The admission of the first Western musician had a profound impact on the group, which, for the first time, felt free to express internal disagreements by switching to English. (Another Westerner, Clive Greensmith, principal cello for London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, replaced Sadao Harada in 1999.)
“The language was a big change, but it was more philosophical,” Ikeda says. “We expected Peter to be different from us. But what we all found out was that the three remaining Japanese players were all also quite different from one another, and it was OK. We’re each different in the way we live. Usually members of a family love each other, but in a quartet you don’t necessarily love each other. You have respect, and honor each other’s privacy.
“ The only base we really have is music.”
Tom Keogh: email@example.com