Classics in technicolor

The Marian Anderson String Quartet

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.

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.

"She was a pioneer through doing her craft. And that's what we want to be," Ms. Henry says. "What a wonderful legend to look up to." Adopting Anderson's name means "everything you do must be to a top-notch level," Henry says.

In the early 1990s the group went to Ander­son's home in Portland, Ore., shortly before her death to play for her and ask permission to use her name.

"We gave her our signed photograph," Henry says. "She placed it on her piano next to a photo of her and President Kennedy."

As musicians, the group's members – Henry (first violin), Diedra Law­rence (viola), Nicole Cherry (second violin), and Ms. McDaniel (cello) – are "also soloists of the first order," says Rob­ert Leslie, a pianist and organist who has performed with the quartet many times for nearly a decade.

But when they play together, audiences feel something special, he says. "Their personalities project from the stage to the audience, and the audience is drawn to them and thus to the music."

He takes special delight when they perform in colorful Nigerian outfits. "When they come out playing Schumann dressed as if they're from sub-Saharan Africa, you're never the same," Dr. Leslie says.

The quartet tries to "champion as many African-American composers as possible," such as Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, who died in 2004, Ms. Cherry says. They're working on a project that would commission American composers to arrange Negro spirituals for string quartet.

But they are passionate about European-based classical music, too.

"I lean toward folk music very much ... like [Czech composer Antonín Leopold] Dvorák," Cherry says. "He really loved his own [folk] music and others'. I love music that has that element of the real people."

"Honestly, these [European] composers were writing for [ordinary] folks," Henry adds. "Mozart was writing operas for the people."

Americans often view classical music as something "lofty," she says, but "I feel very strongly I can share this. If I see a low-income kid, I'm going to put a violin in their hand. It's discipline, and it's opening kids to a new sound world that's beautiful and can focus you."

Baroque music of the 17th century was "the original jazz," reminds McDaniel, employing jazzlike improvisation and chord progressions.

Though each quartet member had a unique upbringing, the common thread was a love of music in their homes.

Growing up in New York's impoverished South Bronx, Ms. Lawrence found that, of her peers, "half were pregnant before they finished high school and half went to jail before they finished."

But she escaped into music. "My mother was a very well-educated woman who loved classical music," she says.

Henry and Lawrence became close friends while students at the Manhattan School of Music, where McDaniel studied as well. To make ends meet they'd recruit a couple of other string players and head for Greenwich Village to play Bach and Mozart quartets "in front of the bank on Christopher Street," Henry says. "We'd go to the nearest pizzeria, divide the money up, and come back a couple of days later."

Cherry recalls that every night after dinner her dad would play jazz and classical music on the family piano.

"I know that public school arts programs are dwindling but I'm grateful that my county in Maryland was very supportive of the arts. I had the greatest music teachers growing up," she says. Cherry eventually earned an advanced degree from The Juilliard School in New York.

The quartet honed its sound for three years at the Eastman School of Music under the renowned Grammy-winning Cleveland String Quartet.

Cherry, the newest member, left a tenured position with an orchestra in North Carolina to join the group. McDaniel's background includes playing with the New York Philharmonic during conductor Zubin Mehta's last year.

Yet for each, something was missing.

When you're playing with "one of the best orchestras in the world, there's a problem if you wake up and say, 'oh, I have to go to work now,' " McDaniel says.

"In an orchestra, you can sit in the midst of many and still feel alone," Cherry says. "Whereas [in this quartet] there's constant interaction and constant awareness of how your colleague is feeling or not feeling all the time. They become family.

"We often call the music the baby. And we're the parents," she says with a laugh.

While the quartet loves to perform, teaching is at the heart of its mission. "When you get a kid who is starving to learn more, it's just as satisfying as performing," Cherry says.

"They're some of the best teaching artists I've seen in the classroom," says Elizabeth Duffell, director of education at the UW World Series, a program at the University of Washington in Seattle. The quartet had residencies there in 2004 and 2009 and will be going back next spring to work with elementary and middle-school students.

A lot of musicians entertain the kids or inspire them, Ms. Duffell says, but "Marian Anderson takes it a step further. They really are teaching these kids discipline. They don't let them get away with anything. They're so rigorous and set such a great example."

The group's good humor and playful nature also win over students – as well as adult audiences.

"They're such a joy. They're so fun. Each one is very different," Duffell says. "I love them. I can't wait to spend time with them again."

"They are some of the most approachable and delightful people as you could imagine," adds pianist Leslie.

Their mission, cellist McDaniel says, is to make classical music available to everybody "because it is for everybody."

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