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Chamber Music Albuquerque, the Guarneri Quartet,

and Ned Rorem’s Third String Quartet

One of the pieces on the Ying Quartet’s program for Chamber Music Albuquerque on June 2 will be the String Quartet No. 3 of American composer Ned Rorem.  This composition holds a special place in CMA’s history.  Our predecessor organization, the Albuquerque June Music Festival, commissioned it from Rorem some thirty-five years ago.  We commissioned the piece as a gift to the Guarneri Quartet, which in its day was one of the world’s most renowned music ensembles.  As many readers of this email already know, the Albuquerque June Music Festival had a lengthy and highly successful relationship with the Guarneri Quartet.  Rorem’s third string quartet was commissioned for the purpose of commemorating this relationship.

Today we are spoiled for choice between dozens of extraordinarily talented and well-trained full-time chamber music ensembles, but this has not always been so.  In mid-twentieth century America, apart from emigree ensembles like the Budapest Quartet and the Kolisch Quartet, the home-grown name-brand full-time string quartets were pretty much limited to such ensembles as the Fine Arts Quartet (founded in 1946), the Juilliard Quartet (likewise 1946), the Guarneri Quartet (1964) and the Cleveland Quartet (1969).   A chamber music organization like the Albuquerque June Music Festival would have to (i) produce its own concerts, putting together ensembles and repertoire for each season or (ii) develop presenting relationships with pre-existing ensembles. 

In its first few decades of existence, the June Music Festival trod each of these paths in succession.  We began by attracting extraordinarily fine musicians to Albuquerque for a series of performances each summer (for example, violinist Robert “Bobby” Mann in the 1940s; pianist Ralph Berkowitz, cellist Georges Miqelle and violinist Josef Gingold in the 1950s and ‘60’s) but shifted by the late 1960’s to lengthy relationships with well-established ensembles. 

In 1967, the Fine Arts Quartet began an eleven-year run as the quartet-in-residence for the Albuquerque June Music Festival.  This lengthy relationship is little remembered today, but the Fine Arts were a marvelous ensemble particularly noted for their eclectic repertoire and extensive recordings.  In 1978 the Fine Arts Quartet and the June Music Festival parted ways, and we moved onto our historic partnership with the Guarneri Quartet.  (The Fine Arts Quartet – albeit with different personnel from its ‘60s and ‘70s roster - made a return visit to the June Music Festival in June 2012, some 34 years after its quartet-in-residence status ended.)        

Starting in 1979, the Guarneri Quartet began performing annual residencies at the Albuquerque June Music Festival.  These annual residencies continued until the late 1990s, eclipsing the length of the Fine Arts Quartet’s local presence.  Publicity materials archived online note that the Guarneri performed an astonishing 68 recitals in Albuquerque for the June Music Festival between 1972 (when they performed a one-off concert prior to their residency) and 1991.  Naturally, this gave rise to an extremely close identification between the June Music Festival and its star ensemble.

In 1990 the June Music Festival commissioned American composer Ned Rorem to write a new piece as a gift for the Guarneri Quartet.  The commission reflected the Festival’s gratitude to the Guarneri, and commemorated the Guarneri’s substantial Albuquerque performance history.  Rorem was an excellent choice to compose this piece: a well-known American composer whose work, while recognizably modern, was considered to be accessibly tonal in orientation.  Although Rorem was (and remains) best known as a composer of vocal music, over the course of his long working life he amassed a catalog of instrumental, chamber and orchestral work as well.  Rorem died just over a year and a half ago, on November 18, 2022, at the age of 99. 

Rorem’s composition, his String Quartet No. 3, was completed in time to be performed at the 1991 Albuquerque June Music Festival.  The Guarneri gave the piece its world premiere on June 9 of that year.  The performance took place at Woodward Hall on the UNM campus (which was where most June Music Festival concerts took place at that time).  The piece was performed a  single time but, to the best of Chamber Music Albuquerque’s knowledge, has never been performed in Albuquerque again – until now.  It will be performed once again, this time by the Ying Quartet, on June 2 at 4pm as part of CMA’s 83rd June Music Festival.

The Ying Quartet is the perfect ensemble to reintroduce this work to its Albuquerque audience.  The performance will be in keeping with the Ying’s long-term project called LifeMusic, which the Quartet’s members describe as “connecting the music they make with the American experience.”  For many years, they have commissioned living American composers to write works that are inspired by life in America while also reflecting the highest standards of musical excellence.  In fact, in 2003, the Ying Quartet commissioned Ned Rorem to write what would in essence become his fifth string quartet, a work called “United States: Seven Viewpoints for String Quartet.”  The Ying’s familiarity with Rorem’s idiom, as well as their long-demonstrated affection for of 20th and 21st Century American works, makes this ensemble just right for reviving the Rorem third quartet.

As for the Guarneri Quartet, they continued performing for the June Music Festival through 1997 (the same year that the Festival changed its name to Chamber Music Albuquerque).  In 2001, the group underwent its first-ever change in personnel since its founding in 1964: cellist David Soyer retired, to be replaced by Peter Wiley.  The Guarneri Quartet formally disbanded in 2009, although its members continued teaching and coaching thereafter.  The group’s rich legacy includes many ensembles mentored, a treasure trove of recordings, the memory of almost twenty years of performances for the Albuquerque June Music Festival -- and Ned Rorem’s String Quartet No. 3.

-- Jonathon Gerson 

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