austin hartman

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

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.

Continues…