Classics in technicolor
The soothing strains of a string quartet waft through an airy rehearsal hall at St. Paul's School. The Concord, N.H., prep school admits top students from all over the world. These young musicians are no exception. A visitor marvels at their advanced playing skills.Skip to next paragraph
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The members of the Marian Anderson String Quartet, who are giving a master class here, are less dazzled. After a short time they stop the students. One by one the adult musicians critique their student counterparts.
"Get the growl," urges one to a student cellist. "You must set the color and tone."
What word does this piece bring to mind? the adult musicians want to know. The students look at each other and fumble for an answer. Decide, they are told – and then express it.
After another couple of false starts, the Marian Anderson Quartet decides to demonstrate. They pick up the students' violin, viola, or cello, sit down in their chairs, quickly tune up, and then attack the same passage as the students look on.
The piece transmogrifies from timid and pale to Technicolor – full of drama, passion, precision, and commitment.
That's the way the members of this two-decade-old quartet love to play ... and teach: with passion and total commitment, four unique individuals united by a single purpose – a love for classical music.
That a group of African-American women have formed their own professional string quartet might seem unusual. That the group has stayed together for so long might be impressive. But that the quartet has made a career "doing what they love," as cofounder Marianne Henry describes it, in today's economy might be the biggest accomplishment of all.
The quartet is expanding its work. Along with touring and performing, and a teaching residency at Blinn College in Bryan, Texas, it's running a music school in Bryan for anyone interested in classical music, regardless of race, sex, or age.
Students who can't pay are taught free of charge. "No one who wants to learn is turned away. That's part of the mission of our school," says member and cellist Prudence McDaniel. Together the four teach nearly 200 students in violin, viola, and cello.
The name Marian Anderson holds a special meaning to the quartet.
Anderson, an African-American contralto from Philadelphia, won acclaim for her singing in Europe and America during the mid-20th century. (Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini once told her, "A voice like yours is heard once in a hundred years.")
In 1937 Anderson famously sang on the steps of Washington's Lincoln Memorial to a crowd of 75,000 after having been denied the right to sing in Constitution Hall because of its "white artists only" policy.