Austin Hartman: conversing with Beethoven

Pacifica Quartet's new violinist explains why the group is tackling all Beethoven's string quartets this week in Portland, and why chamber music matters

By MATTHEW ANDREWS

Violinist Austin Hartman joined Pacifica Quartet last year— just in time to embark on performances of Beethoven’s complete string quartets, which the ensemble brings to Portland State University in a series of five concerts presented this week by Friends of Chamber Music. The quartet has impressed Oregon listeners in several previous visits. In the second of our stories about this monumental cycle, ArtsWatch asked Hartman why these quartets and this series are so special, about his journey in classical music, and more. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Oregon Arts Watch: I’ve heard it said that there is Beethoven for people who have lived life, and there is Beethoven for people who haven’t. That rings pretty true for me. How do you see that idea in the quartets?

Austin Hartman: Beethoven is a unique composer in that there is something for everyone. People coming to it for the first time can enjoy it in a fresh and new way, and certainly Beethoven gives you plenty to unpack as a new listener. And then, just as it is with other great master composers, these quartets provide lifetimes of exploration into what it even means for us as musicians. What do these experiences mean? How do we go about bringing out the greatest depth from this composer? And then for the listener: how does that relate to my human experience? This man is exploring a range of human emotion and is writing it at different points.

Pacifica Quartet corners the Beethoven quartet market this week at Portland State University. Photo: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

Each of the early, middle, and late periods speak to a seasoned listener more powerfully at different times, and I think that is the other benefit of the cycle. It’s like sitting down to have a long conversation with someone — the longer you sit there and talk to them, the more you get to know them. And the way you relate to that conversation might be very dependent on how your day has been going.

OAW: Each concert in the festival you’re playing here in Portland is its own microcosm: each one features early, middle, and late quartets. How did you decide to do it that way, and how has that changed how you play them?

Hartman: Someday we would like to try and do it in a linear way and figure out what that experience is like, and just watch a composer age in the progression of the quartets. The size and scope of the works would be interesting. We would have to figure out how to divvy up some of the late quartets—they are certainly much longer than the earlier ones. And there is no less challenge there: all of the quartets are challenging in different kinds of ways for the performer. And for the listener too.

I think one of the benefits of mixing it up the way we are doing it in Portland is the fact that it really gives concert-goers a sample from each period, and it makes the listener really be on their toes. Certainly the late quartets push listeners in a very different way than the early quartets do.

I’m sure part of the thinking in putting it together this way is we are having a balanced evening, balanced in terms of different keys, different characters, so we aren’t putting all the dark and stormy weather ones together. There are rays of sunshine in the middle. It is interesting that a majority of the quartets go out on a major note: it’s almost like Beethoven just couldn’t allow the suffering or the darkness to sit there.

So part of it has to do with the character and keys and how they relate. It’s really through that lens that we put these together this way.

OAW: How do you treat a cycle of quartets as a single work? It’s so much music to have in your head at one time. And your interpretation of the cycle must develop over time, in the same sense that your interpretation of a single quartet develops over time.

Hartman: You’re preparing not only to present concert after concert, but really to get yourself as a performer ready to engage with the entire scope of the project. With Beethoven, you’re dealing with a man who is expressing his entire life in sixteen quartets, starting with his early works and his youthfulness, and ending with some of the challenges he faced in his later years. As a performer, getting ready to take that on, it’s probably like an actor getting ready to step into character, trying to grapple with the range of experiences this composer is expressing. And then our hope is that we as a quartet can give the listener an opportunity to go on that journey with us and get to know the composer better.

It grows us over the course of the project—certainly, doing it you get to know Beethoven very intimately. His repertoire demands the highest level of technical proficiency and musical depth, and I think we grow a lot. This is a process that will take many lifetimes to figure out and understand completely, but it’s our hope that in our time with the audience, we can all work together to catch a glimpse of who Beethoven was and the impact that he had.

It’s remarkable that his quartets exist. We are so fortunate as an ensemble to have such great repertoire. And it’s amazing how these works of Beethoven have so impacted other composers. It’s a dynamic set of quartets that isn’t just about a once and done experience. It’s about the impact it continues to have year after year after year.

OAW: What was the first one that turned you on, made you think “hmm, this Beethoven fellow really knows what he is doing with this string quartet thing”?

Hartman: I think the very first Beethoven quartet I did was op.18 no.4, when I was a student. I remember the first time reading this quartet and not knowing what I was getting into and being so blown away with the drama. Explosive moments, moments of sublimity. A few years later, with some colleagues at a music festival, it was op.59 no.3 and that magnificent fugato.

Pacifica Quartet violinist Austin Hartman

I remember being so excited with the fact that there is such virtuosity in Beethoven in addition to all of this character. This guy really knows how to make you run around and stand on your head and try to keep up with your colleagues. And I think that was huge moment of excitement for me knowing that I can do this. I can play with people who are excited about this music. And this music inspires me to bring my A game.

OAW: What was the first experience that made your eyebrows shoot up and go “ooh, this music thing”?

Hartman: I remember the very, very first time that I got to play music with somebody else. I started the violin when I was very young, and then it was some summer festival when I was probably in elementary school. I was just so inspired and excited by the fact that when I played with somebody, the way the sounds went together—it just blew my mind that this could even be possible. I don’t even think we were playing anything that imaginative; I don’t even remember the piece. I just remember the way we pulled our bows the same way, and the harmonies. It was just so exciting to hear that sound.

I mean, it was very nice to learn my pieces by myself, and it was fun to play with the piano, but when I got with a fellow string player and heard two string instruments playing together, that was the moment I was taken—not only with music, but the idea of chamber music and what it is, which is friends getting together and sharing the sound. And I think as I matured, I almost couldn’t keep away.

I also grew up listening to a lot of choral music and as I got older and began reading string quartets, the connection for me to the vocal elements was really exciting. When I started string quartet playing, one of our dear mentors, Peter Salas, would talk about playing the Bach chorales together and hearing this wonderful music with four voices playing against string instruments. Hearing the different tunings and how it can sound really pure and beautiful, that was probably the next element of “this is great stuff! We have to do this!”

So I played in the Biava Quartet for 12 years; when that finished I had a teaching job and started a quartet there. And now to be doing it with Pacifica Quartet, it’s almost a little crescendo from that moment. I couldn’t keep away from that idea of making chamber music with my friends.

OAW: What is the future of classical music?

Hartman: I’m excited by the enthusiasm. The Pacifica Quartet is at the Jacob School of Music at Indiana University, and I’m excited by the enthusiasm of students we teach there. Also we teach the advanced quartet training program in Aspen, and the thoughtfulness of the students and their response to the music and their desire to take this music out and get it beyond the conservatory walls and into the community and the concert halls—I’m excited by that. I’m excited by their passion for that. It’s one of the things I was passionate about doing.

To see the students excited to do that is very encouraging. I think it is our duty as musicians to also be models. We don’t have the same kind of vehicle that maybe we had fifty years ago. We don’t have, unfortunately, the wonderful Leonard Bernstein and his young people’s concerts, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t have opportunities to be ambassadors for the arts. In Kansas City and Detroit, we did a four day residency where we were playing major concerts every evening: we did four major concerts and the rest of the time was going out to schools and mentoring students that could do it and exposing some kids that was their very first time.

I think if musicians continue to pull together and do these kinds of things, we can create a culture and do the best that we can to keep arts as vibrant as we possibly can in this age. And I think it is tremendously important in our time to do that.

Friends of Chamber Music’s Festival Beethoven continues through November 4 at Lincoln Performance Hall, Portland State University, 1620 SW Park Ave. Tickets $30 – $55, $5 student rush and $5 Arts for All tickets (subject to availability). 503.224.9842 or focm.org. 

Read ArtsWatch’s preview of the Pacifica Quartet’s performances, which includes an interview with new violist Mark Holloway, and Alice Hardesty’s interview feature with founding members Simin Ganatra and Brandon Vamos.

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, singer, percussionist, and editor of Subito at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com

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