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Bingeing on Beethoven with St. Paul’s Artaria String Quartet

This weekend, starting Saturday, Feb. 8, the St. Paul-based Artaria String Quartet will play half of the Beethovens in Hamline’s Sundin Hall. They’ll play the other half in April.

Artaria String Quartet
Artaria String Quartet, from left to right: Patricia Ryan, cello; Ray Shows, violin; Nancy Oliveros, violin; and Annalee Wolf, viola.
Jeannine Marie Photography

In case you haven’t heard, 2020 is Beethoven’s 250th birthday year. Orchestras and ensembles the world over are performing complete cycles of his works: all of the symphonies (nine), all of the string quartets (16), all of the piano sonatas (32!).

Beethoven’s string quartets have been compared to Shakespeare’s plays, Michelangelo’s statues, the Bible, Rembrandt’s portraits, the building of cathedrals and the rise of democracy. Taking them on is a huge commitment. Playing them all takes about nine hours.

For BTHVN2020, Germany’s name for this jubilee year, the Twin Cities will get two complete cycles of Beethoven’s string quartets in live performance. A third will be as near as Northfield. The one that’s gotten the most attention so far will be presented by the Schubert Club and performed in May by the Danish String Quartet, currently the hottest string quartet on the planet.

This weekend, starting Saturday, Feb. 8, the St. Paul-based Artaria String Quartet will play half of the Beethovens in Hamline’s Sundin Hall. They’ll play the other half in April. Performances will be recorded for future release.

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Artaria is an award-winning professional string quartet now in its 34th year, with numerous awards and kudos to its credit: a McKnight fellowship for performing musicians; grants from the NEA, Chamber Music America and the Minnesota State Arts Board; a year as MPR’s Artists in Residence.

Violinist Ray Shows is a founding member of Artaria. We spoke by phone on Tuesday. This interview has been edited and condensed.

MinnPost: Aside from this being Beethoven’s birthday year, why are you doing this?

Ray Shows: There are certain mountains that have to be climbed and are part of our history and humanity. It is the pinnacle of a string quartet’s activities to record the Beethoven cycle. And it’s great music. Time-tested. I could go on and on.

MP: Artaria performed all 15 Shostakovich string quartets starting in 2011. Was there anything you took from that experience and brought to Beethoven?

RS: The preparation. We have been preparing for three years. We played a lot of Beethoven this season and the season before. Everything we are presenting now has been performed by the four of us in public before we land on Saturday. Some of it, like the Grosse Fuge, we’ve been doing for 25 years.

We had 100 days of rehearsals in front of this that were basically nonstop. We had holiday breaks and whatnot, but it was straight-on six months of solid rehearsals. We rehearse three to four times a week. This is the final week, so each rehearsal day, we’re doing a complete program.

You only do this if you’re committed. You don’t climb Mount Everest if you’re not committed.

MP: How did you decide the order for each concert? Because you’re not playing the quartets in the order they were written.

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RS: Building the programs is one of the most interesting parts of this, as far as we’re concerned. There’s no one way of doing it.

We’re breaking [the cycle] down into two three-concert weekends. We decided to end [the final concert in April] with the Grosse Fuge. That’s the most modern piece of all of it. As Stravinsky said, it’s perpetually modern.

The other ending piece, for weekend number one [in February], is Opus 59, No. 3. It’s just a magnificent piece of music.

So we have those as anchors, and we wanted to split up all of the Opus 18s [the six early string quartets] across all six concerts. Each concert has one of those. And then, of course, insert thematic things that tie pieces together historically or harmonically.

We’re doing Opus 130 with the Finale and Opus 130 with the Grosse Fuge, the way it was originally written. Beethoven’s publisher, Artaria – our namesake – thought the Grosse Fuge was too intense for most audiences to handle and should be reissued as a separate opus number. This is one time that Beethoven acquiesced. The Finale was added at the publisher’s request.

The long and the short of it is, we’re playing all of the string quartet music. We felt it was important for at least somebody to come to a concert and hear Opus 130 the way it was originally conceived.

MP: The quartets are most often grouped by style into early, middle and late. You came up with something different. Can you talk about that?

RS: We refer to the first period of time as “Affirmation.” Beethoven is writing in the style of Mozart, his teacher, and Haydn. He’s trying to be affirmed as a great composer in the late 1790s, so he composes Opus 18.

The second period of time, which is referred to as the middle period, we call “Rebellion.” Beethoven is writing pieces for Napoleon. He’s writing the Razumovsky quartets because he wants the Russians to support the Austrians against the French. He’s writing pieces that are not commissions and giving them away. He wrote Opus 74 and named it the “Harp” Quartet, breaking with tradition.

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We refer to the late period as “Transcendence.” Remember that Beethoven is going deaf. His grip on communicating in society is blocked. In his last quartets, he’s talking to God. He’s moving beyond earthly realms.

When you put Affirmation, Rebellion and Transcendence together, you get A-R-T.

We hope that when people come to our concerts, as many as they can come to, even if they only come to one, they will experience the transition from affirmation through rebellion to transcendence.

MP: Are you saying that every concert includes all of these elements?

RS: Exactly. We want people to engage with this music. We’ll also have pre-concert lectures and post-concert Q&As. We’ll have letters written by Beethoven read during the concerts. On Sunday afternoon, we’ll go out for a meal with anyone who wants to come and chat about the concert.

MP: When Artaria decided to perform the Beethoven cycle, did you know the Danish String Quartet was coming here for the same reason?

RS: Yeah. The Schubert Club engaged us for the Shostakovich cycle a few years back, but the Danish String Quartet manager beat us by a year. So we had two choices. We could bow out and let them do it. But we’re a good quartet, and we’re local, and people should see what a state-supported string quartet can do. We’re the only Minnesota string quartet that’s full time all the time. This is our job.

MP: Did the Danish String Quartet’s appearance affect your performance schedule?

RS: Oh, of course. You don’t want to sit right on top of it. That wouldn’t help anybody. They originally decided for February, and I said fine, we’ll do ours after theirs, no problem. And then Barry Kempton [the Schubert Club’s artistic and executive director] called and said, “Ray, I have to let you know they changed the dates. I hope this doesn’t mess you up.” And I said, “Well, it does change our timetable a little, but thank you for letting me know.” He gave me a year’s notice, so we had time to make an adjustment.

MP: Do you have any advice for people who are coming to hear Artaria play Beethoven?

RS: I wanted to say initially that they should come with an open mind, but that’s not it. You don’t have to come with an open mind. With Beethoven, you just have to come and open your heart up.

The music can be intense. But then you start listening to the bouncy quality of Opus 18, No. 6, or the Romeo and Juliet movements from Opus 18, No. 1. And then there’s the Cavatina from Opus 30, No. 13. It’s the one Beethoven string quartet movement that went on the Voyager spacecraft [on the Golden Record]. Every single time we play it, it draws a tear from someone’s eye in the room. I’m not making this up.


The Artaria String Quartet is Ray Shows, violin; Nancy Oliveros, violin; Annalee Wolf, viola; and Patricia Ryan, cello. Their first three Beethoven concerts will be held Saturday, Feb. 8, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Feb. 9, at 3 p.m.; and Monday, Feb. 10, at 7:30 p.m., The second set of three concerts will be held April 18, 19, and 20. All will be in Sundin Hall. FMI and links to tickets (individual concerts $22, all six $114).

Artaria will perform the cycle twice more: at St. Olaf College in Northfield (where Shows is on the faculty) and at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Wisconsin (where Artaria was once in residence). FMI; scroll down to “More Beethoven.” The St. Olaf concerts are free.