The half-islander string quartet Beau Metro plays Friday.
As a lifelong musician, Stephen Bryant holds just about every form of classical musical expression in high regard, be it the piano quintet, the symphony orchestra, the string trio or the opera, to scrape the tip of the iceberg.
But the violinist is gaga for string quartets.
“The average person doesn’t realize that the string quartet is the magic combination,” he said.
Steve and his wife, Sue Jane Bryant, form half of such an alchemical combo. And this Friday evening, their Beau Metro Quartet will play the first concert in the Island Gallery’s spring 2008 series.
To explain his passion for string quartet, Steve, whose “day job” is with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, goes back to the beginning.
“(Franz Joseph) Haydn was a great experimenter, a scientist,” he said. “He hit on two things that endured. One of those is the string quartet, and one of those is the symphony. And that really got it all started.”
The term “string quartet” refers both to the musical formation – traditionally two violins, a viola and cello – and to the composition created for it, usually consisting of four movements that mimicked the arc of a symphony.
Thanks to Haydn and two of his most illustrious students, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, the form gained prevalence to the point, Steve said, where most of the great composers ever since have written them.
Beethoven himself wrote 16. The Bryants along with their cohorts, Tom Dziekonski on violin and Virginia Dziekonski on cello, will end Friday’s concert with the composer’s last one.
As the story goes, when a local businessman commissioned the piece, Beethoven – ill, deaf and nearly blind – sent his assistants to do the negotiating. Balking at the cost, the patron sent Beethoven’s minions back with his sticker-shocked plea: “Must it be?”
“And Beethoven laughed really hard, and then promptly wrote it into the music,” Steve said, going on to describe a jaunty back-and-forth among the strings that eventually builds to a joyful “Yes, it must!” climax.
“From a man on his deathbed and whose body is failing him, this string quartet is not about suffering,” Steve waid. “It’s the most radiant and beautiful music.”
The fittingly four-year-old Beau Metro is the latest in a 30-year effort on the part of Steve and Sue Jane – a viola player, teacher and long-time symphony player herself – to form string quartets in every city they’ve lived in.
This group’s name reflects both its history and its joie de vivre. When the couple lived in Vancouver, B.C., Steve was a member of the Beau Quartet. Upon moving to the Seattle area, Steve joined Tom Dziekonski’s Metropolitan Quartet and learned that the Dziekonskis, too, had played in quartets together for 30 years. The symmetry appealed, and the four began collaborating.
“The Beau Metro,” Steve said. “Which sort of sounds like ‘the beautiful subway.’”
The remainder of the program does indeed offer a bit of the French from composer Cesar Franck as well as works by Volans, Borodin and Grieg. Steve says he’s keen to introduce each piece not just based on its own merits, but to show how a program featuring these remarkably different composers can, by virtue of the form, create a cohesive whole.
Sue Jane, meanwhile, is enjoying the prospect of playing in a gallery not just because it will get their music out of its traditional concert hall and into a fresh venue.
She has also of late cultivated an interest in the relationship between music and visual arts, and loves the idea of people hearing the quartet against a backdrop of artwork.
“It helps some listeners who are very visual,” she said.
In Sue Jane’s own individual instruction, she’d long since come to notice the connection some kids made with the notion of playing to color. So if a student was having trouble hitting a sharp, she might suggest that he visualize bright pink, or conversely, a flat as dull pink.
Last week, Beau Metro went to a seventh and eighth grade art class in the Odyssey Multiage Program and played most of the program while the students drew.
“In the middle of the Beethoven scherzo, this one young girl starts flinging her arms all around, and it was just the most amazing and interesting thing. She was really feeling it,” Sue Jane said.
Five of that day’s student works will be mounted at the gallery in time for Friday’s performance. Sue Jane found the experiment so promising that she’s planning similar visits to local elementary schools and to Bainbridge High School.
“It goes nicely with chamber music and also brings the art community together with the music community,” she said.
The Beau Metro Quartet will play at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 15 at the Island Gallery, 100-106 Madison Avenue. Tickets are $20/$10 in advance or at the door. See www.theislandgallery.net.