The quartet isn't just beloved in Brew City. It's also internationally renowned – the Washington Post calls it "one of the gold-plated names in chamber music."
To hear Michael Barndt describe it, the process for Fine Arts Quartet leader Ralph Evans to find lost songs is like finding buried treasure.
“He’s really very good at digging out obscure options,” Barndt says. “He’ll discover some composition…that’s been played by almost no one and go find it in a library in Europe.”
Since the compositions are written in separate books for each individual in a quartet, sometimes this process even involves Evans filling in the blanks for pieces that have been lost to history. Many of the individual books have been claimed by time: misplaced, destroyed or otherwise. Say that a quartet piece has books for two violins and a viola, but no cello: Evans then has to compose a cello part using the books he already has. It’s a painstaking process, but a small price to pay to keep the music alive.
The FAQ specializes in little-known fugues and preludes dangling on the edge of oblivion, earning accolades for their eclectic programming. The elite quartet stays in constant demand, trotting the globe to tour dates in Finland and Russia in the weeks before their return to Milwaukee on July 11. The quartet is also set to perform the world premiere of Mozart’s Concerto For Two Pianos transcribed for the chamber at UW-Milwaukee’s Zelazo Center on July 18.
Elena Abend, a pianist and current professor of music education at UWM, says the selection makes perfect sense.
“The piano and string repertoire is so strong … going back even to classical compositions,” Abend says.
Violinist Efim Boico says that playing the esoteric compositions keeps their selections fresh and inventive.
“It helps to not just play the same thing all the time,” Boico laughs. “We want to take something new and bring it back to the community.”
The Quartet was founded in 1939 by former members of the Chicago Symphony. They came to Milwaukee in 1963 as part of a residency with UW-Milwaukee until 2017. Abend studied with the group when she was a student at UWM. She’s now an elite-level concert pianist and has played many times with the quartet.
“They were my coaches, my teachers,” Abend says. “They always treated me as an equal partner.”
The residency was ended in 2017 due to a lack of funding, resulting from budget cuts to the UW system totaling $362 million from 2012 to 2017. With that, the Quartet lost its tether to Milwaukee.
That’s where the Friends of the Fine Arts Quartet come in.
Barndt is on the steering committee for the Friends of the FAQ, a group of donors that funds the quartet’s concerts in Milwaukee. They collect donations ranging anywhere from $10 to $5,000 and organize educational events to accompany the series; Barndt is instrumental in organizing speaking guests for the concerts, such as WHAD Classical’s Stephanie Elkins and pianist Alon Goldstein.
“The challenge was not to preserve the Fine Arts Quartet, but to bring them back to Milwaukee,” Barndt said.
Boico seems confident in saying the FAQ wouldn’t miss it for the world.
“It’s an opportunity to talk to the people here,” Boico said. “Milwaukee is a very special city.”
Their frequent returns to Milwaukee have developed a strong nucleus of supporters, including fans like Dr. Sidney Grossberg. The former chair of microbiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin first saw the Quartet in 1966 and has been a staunch supporter ever since, following them to tour dates in New York and across the drink to shows in Paris and Ephesus, among others.
This isn’t your typical trip to the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Barndt describes chamber music as much more intimate than symphony music. He says that the musings of a quartet are a conversational process, an interesting dialogue where you can see the performers studying each other, and in turn studying themselves.
The current members of the Quartet are renowned violinist and composer Ralph Evans, violinist and Efim Boico, violist Gil Sharon and cellist Niklas Schmidt. Together, they make an incomparable harmony, Barndt says.
“There’s a richness, a sensitivity, a togetherness, a warmth and a delicacy in the appreciation that they bring to the music,” Grossberg says.
The series begins July 11 at Saint John’s on the Lake with a discussion on Mozart’s piano concertos by Prometheus Trio pianist Stefanie Jacobs. Concerts will be held July 14 at the Helene Zelazo Center, returning to St. John’s on the Lake for a July 16 concert and a finale at the Zelazo Center July 18.