This year, the Spokane String Quartet celebrates its 25th season of making music in the Inland Northwest and beyond. Founded in 1979 as the quartet-in-residence at Eastern Washington University, the SSQ has toured Europe and played Carnegie Hall since that time. But the heart of the group's mission lies right here, bringing classic and contemporary chamber music to hometown audiences.
The quartet's lineup remained mostly stable for its first 15 years, but the past decade has seen frequent personnel changes. First violinist Kelly Farris has been with the group since its founding, but this is the first time in several years that all four players from the prior year are returning. Helen Byrne, cello, is starting her fourth season. Tana Bachman, second violin, actually began her quartet tenure on viola but switched back to violin with the arrival of violist Nick Carper a little more than a year ago.
I visited with the quartet at a rehearsal last week. We began by chatting about the importance of relationships in a chamber ensemble.
"Being part of an ongoing quartet, it's a little like your family," says Byrne. "And you're not always your most polite with family members."
"Really, we see each other more than we see our families, sometimes," Bachman adds. "But this group, I find, gets along well, even in the stressful times, with the concert only a week away."
"Kelly is familiar with the repertoire while we're learning it," Byrne adds. "The quartet had a way of doing it before, but he has to wait for us to catch up. And then we have to argue with him about why we have to do it that way."
After the rest of group laughs, Farris says adapting to fresh faces has not been frustrating. "I have ways of playing that come naturally, but I hope I'm not too overbearing about the way it was in the old days. Maybe in the old days it wasn't very good, either."
"You mean you didn't always get along?" Byrne asks with mock incredulity.
After more laughter, Farris shrugs. "Quartet playing is listening to each other and saying what you think. That's how it works."
The members recalled with fondness the late Jane Blegen, the quartet's long-time second violinist who died last year after a long battle with cancer.
"In a lot of ways, Jane was the conscience of the quartet," Byrne remembers.
"Jane was enthusiastic about all aspects of the quartet," Farris says. "We have our own nonprofit organization, the Spokane Chamber Music Association, thanks to Jane. She found our first development director. We have an endowment now, so we have a baseline of support for our activities."
All four members of the group have family ties in Spokane, so they each feel a strong connection to the community.
"We were all born here," Bachman begins. "So, we all really are Spokanites."
"Yeah, even though Nick left after six months," Byrne quips.
Carper's father was in the Air Force reserves, so the family moved when he was just six months old, he explains, adding that he was born during Expo '74. "My mom said she could see the fireworks from her room at Sacred Heart," he deadpans. He returned to Spokane two years ago to take the position with the Spokane Symphony after completing his master's degree at Butler University in Indianapolis.
"I'm a born-and-raised Spokanite," Bachman says. "I never left." She started playing with the Symphony at 17, completed the music program at EWU, and also teaches privately.
"And she does rock-climbing," Byrne adds.
Rock climbing? That sport where you ascend a sheer cliff face by sticking your precious fingertips into crevices?
"She terrifies us every time she goes out," Byrne teases.
"I've promised them I won't climb the week before a concert," Bachman admits. "But it's a really good outlet."
The quartet members see an important niche in the community for the chamber music repertoire because of its intimacy.
"Some people come to classical music from hearing us in homes, up close," Farris says. "But it's never going to be a large audience."
"Chamber music requires something from the audience," Byrne says. "It requires active listening. People have told me they like being close enough to see the interactions between us as we play."
"I have heard people say that Spokane has no culture," says Bachman, the lifelong resident. "But it's here. We just have to make sure they know about it."