Hagen Quartet San Francisco Interview: 11/01/2014

  A chat with violinist Rainer Schmidt:  

On Saturday morning, November 1st, 2014, I had the opportunity to connect with violinist Rainer Schmidt, who is on tour in California with the famous Hagen String Quartet.

Mr. Schmidt has been a member of this quartet for 28 years. While the Quartet has given occasional concerts at the University of California-Berkeley, this year they are appearing in Southern California, in San Francisco, as well as at a concert in Carmel, California on Sunday, November 2nd.

Mr. Schmidt was totally gracious and patient, as I posed some questions for him:  

HZ: I have a lot of Hagen’s performances recorded on my iPod, and I listen to you on my deck, overlooking the ocean. How has the availability of on-line music affected the public’s attendance at your concerts?

RS: With music on-line, of course you have the ability to interrupt the music and then return. But I don’t agree that there’s an impact to live performances. Nothing can take the place, acoustically, of the direct LIVE contact of sound with the listener.

HZ: How do you maintain the Hagen concert repertoire as fresh and interesting for the audience? Do you add new works to the repertoire from time to time?

RS: Our repertoire includes works by Witold Lutoslawski. We have also played string quartets by contemporary German composer Joerg Widmann over the past few years. Recently, we commissioned him to compose a Clarinet quintet; it will be two years or so before this work is ready for performance.

HZ: The four members of your quartet have made music together for many years. How do you make decisions on musical interpretations?

RS: It is basically a democratic process where one has to go along with the view of the majority. You have to keep respect. Even if I don’t agree, I have to respect the view of others. Potentially, if my feeling is strong, I can bring up the same topic on another occasion.

HZ: What is your “home base”? Do you all live in Salzburg, Austria?

RS: Three of the quartet’s players are siblings who do live in Salzburg; I moved to Spain for several years, but I live in Basel, Switzerland now. We get together 7-8 times per year for rehearsal sessions, and of course we travel together on annual tours.

HZ: Have you made changes in interpretations of the music you perform? Example, use more or less vibrato?

RS: Yes; definitely there have been changes. There were periods where we played with more Vibrato. But the vibrato adds overtones, so it is not appropriate for some works. As an example, we use less Vibrato when we play Brahms.

HZ: Please comment on whether each of you teach individual musicians or groups.

RS: Each of us teach individual musicians. I also enjoy coaching string quartet groups at my home location in Basel, Switzerland. I have coached several excellent American groups, including the Parker Quartet.

HZ: When Gustav Mahler was a young student, he composed a Piano Quartet. Has the Hagen group ever played this? This work was premiered in the US in 1964.

RS: I believe that Veronika Hagen and her brother, Lukas, played this, but I do not recall the details.

HZ: I read that Lukas Hagen plays a 1724 Stradivari violin. So do all of you have Stradivari or Amati instruments?

RS: We are fortunate to now be playing the so-called “Paganini instruments” on loan to us from the Nippon Fund in Japan. These instruments were formerly played by the Tokyo String Quartet.

HZ: Would you share with my readers any amusing stories about instrument failures, broken strings or bows that occurred during concerts?

RS: During a performance in Tokyo, we played the Beethoven String Quartet Op. 131. As you know this quartet has seven movements, which are played without pause. During the final movement, one of the strings on my instrument broke with a huge explosive sound. I decided to continue to play on the other strings, transposed an octave lower or higher, so we could bring the piece to its conclusion. Every one of my partners felt that I made the right decision.  

HZ: Mr. Schmidt, thank you again for your time and your courtesy. I have my tickets for your concert in Carmel tomorrow, and I look forward to listen to the Hagen Quartet perform the great music of Mozart and Brahms.