HOLDREGE — Versatile — that’s how Robert Waters, violinist for the Fry Street Quartet, describes the work of ensembles featuring two violins, viola and cello.
“The thing about the string quartet is that, depending on what the composer wanted at any given moment or any given second, it can sound like many different ensembles,” Waters said in an interview from the ensemble’s base in Logan, Utah. “It can sound like a choir of voices where all four voices are very closely blended. Or it can sound like four really distinctive individual voices.”
A composer can pair up the voices, writing passages for the higher pair or the lower pair, crossing pairs of instruments or even writing music for a trio and an additional instrument.
“There are all kinds of combinations that work incredibly well for composers for the last several hundred years,” Waters said about the history of the string quartet.
Central Nebraska audiences can hear some of those combinations when the Fry Street Quartet — two violins, viola and cello — perform at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 17 at The Tassel Performing Arts Center in Holdrege as part of The Tassel’s performance season.
“Hayden was the first person to really take the string quartet much farther than it ever had been before, in terms of the complexity and the nuance of the music,” Waters said. “Once he laid the groundwork, there were hundreds of masterpieces written for string quartet because it is such a flexible ensemble.”
Fry Street Quartet formed in Chicago in 1997, naming itself after the address of its first performance space. Waters joined the group in 2015. The members practice 15-20 hours a week, in addition with teaching at Utah State University where the quartet as been housed since 2002.
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While Waters understands the distinct attributes that make a string quartet so powerful, he also understands the qualities that can present challenges for a group of that size.
“When you start removing voices and you end up with an ensemble of only four voices, things are very exposed,” he said. “If you’re playing Mozart or Beethoven or something like that and you play something slightly out of tune, pretty much everyone is going to hear it right away. There’s a level of exposure and delicacy that comes with doing it well. It requires a good string quartet to rehearse a lot, often dedicating their entire lives to doing it well.”
Waters and his fellow musicians hone their craft to forge an artistic experience for audiences.
“In a string quartet, the synchronicity has to be so perfect in a lot of places, whether it is a very fast, rhythmically tricky spot where everyone has to be absolutely on pointe,” he said. “If someone just stumbles a little, it can derail the whole thing. The same is true for playing in tune and the same is true for layering sound. If somebody checks out, it can wreck the other three people as well.”
Because of the massive amount of musical literature created for the string quartet, Waters acknowledges the importance of communication within the group.
“A happy string quartet is a pretty great place to be,” he said. “There are hundreds of masterpieces so you’re in touch with real musical genius on a daily basis. When you find three other people that you can work with, in an intense way — but not in a ways that is abrasive or destructive — over time you really start to build something that is really special, very unique to that particular group.”
Those bonds of communication require time to foster. And after years of working together, members of quartets often acquire a shorthand for communication.
“There becomes so many things that are just understood,” Waters said. “Even in performance, somebody makes a slight gesture with an eyebrow, and you’ve seen that eyebrow for the last 10 or 20 years, you know exactly what that means and what is coming next.”
Without that history of communication, four absolutely fantastic musicians won’t have the same chemistry as a group that has been performing together for years.