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Meet the Ames Piano Quartet!
By Steve Jones
Piano quartets are few and far between, yet one of the best is home at Iowa State University
The Ames Piano Quartet, clockwise from top left, Mahlon Darlington, Jonathan Sturm, George Work and William David.
It’s not uncommon for the Ames Piano Quartet to be asked, “Where are all the pianos?” Chamber music followers know a piano quartet features one keyboard and three strings, and chamber music aficionados know the Ames Piano Quartet is among the very best in the world at what it does.
The quartet is the resident chamber ensemble at Iowa State University. It’s a foursome of music professors—William David, piano, Mahlon Darlington, violin, Jonathan Sturm, viola, and George Work, cello—who have mastered their repertoire via gifted musicianship, years of work and, with one exception, no membership turnover.
They boast a professional manager, perform around the globe and have become the most recorded piano quartet ever with a collection of a dozen albums. Not bad for a group once introduced as hailing from Idaho State University.
“Piano quartets are few and far between,” said John Gilbert, professor of music and chair of strings at Texas Tech University and a colleague of the Ames Quartet. “The body of literature for piano quartets is much smaller than for a string quartet. You can master the entire repertoire, which is why they are so good.
“They are exceptional at what they do.” Gilbert, who has performed with the Ames group, emphasizes, however, that piano quartets are not without great music. Brahms, Dvorak, Mozart, Faure, Beethoven and others each composed masterpieces for this combination. “Almost every one of the great composers who wrote chamber music made a significant contribution to this music,” Gilbert said. “And the Ames Piano Quartet has recorded almost the entire repertoire. These guys own this repertoire.” Some concertgoers don’t know what to expect from a piano quartet and are surprised by the group’s sheer volume of sound. “I’ve heard people say, ‘I never thought you could get so much sound out of four instruments,’” Work said. “The sound is almost like an orchestra.”
Bruce Owen runs the annual Colours of Music festival in Barre, Ontario, where the quartet was in residence last September. “Of course, string quartet music is wonderful,” he said, “but the piano adds a richness—a solidness, a texture— which cannot be found in all-strings repertoire.” Despite the piano’s extra tonal dimension, some chamber music disciples turn up their noses at piano quartet music. “The culture in America and particularly in Europe,” said Sturm, “can tend toward the idea that only string quartets and piano trios own the best chamber music, which I feel is patently wrong.”
With only one personnel change in nearly three decades, consistency is a hallmark of the Ames Quartet. David joined then-ISU orchestra director Larry Burkhalter in the mid- 1970s to form half of the original “Iowa State Piano Quartet.” Darlington became a member in 1976 and Work in 1981. The retooled foursome started playing concerts, traveled more and hired a professional manager. Two years later they moved to a new management company that still represents them today. Along the way the group acquired its present name. “There was confusion with our original Iowa State name,” said Darlington. “People would ask, ‘Are you from Iowa City?’” Not only did the title Ames Piano Quartet better identify the group, “It also sounded better,” Work added. Sturm joined in 1998 when Burkhalter retired, ensuring another long stint of continuity rarely found among ensembles including string quartets and trios.
Often piano quartets are formed groups of four top musicians joining sounds for a festival or another event. "While these international stars bring their own panache to a performance," said Sturm, "the Ames Quartet's signature style has evolved over months of rehearsal, creating a tight ensemble less frequently encountered from some of the ad hoc pairings." "There are only a few long-standing piano quartets, so we're playing music not very often played by a group with a history of working together," Darlington said. Music has taken the Ames Piano Quartet to Europe, Taiwan, South Africa, Cuba and throughout North America. They were packing for a Russian visit as this article went to press.
The 2003 Cuban trip was the first by an American chamber ensemble in more than 40 years. In addition to performances, the quartet taught gifted albeit poor students playing dilapidated, second-hand instruments. "They were like sponges, taking in everything we told them," recalled David. "The perspective they provided-to work hard for your dream-was one we had begun to miss in our own country."
Work remembered, "When we left them our music stands as a gift, it was as if we had given them each a Mercedes Benz!" The 2006 South Africa visit was an eye opener. One lesson was given in a former prison converted into a school. Barbed wire was still visible. Another time they arrived for a performance at a small church in a crime-ridden shantytown to find no piano. A frantic search turned up a small Casio electric keyboard with half the normal keys. David did his best in a shortened program as Sturm's wife turned the pages and worked the volume because the instrument had no other means of dynamic control.
"There were pieces we couldn't play because of the range of the keyboard," David explained, "and I certainly didn't do any solos."
One need not spend much time with Bill David, Mahlon Darlington, George Work and Jonathan Sturm to realize they like one another. They good-naturedly kid around as if it were league night for their bowling team. While some ensembles unite only for rehearsals and performances, the Ames bunch travels together, shares hotel rooms and enjoys each other's company socially.
"This group functions so well because it found itself out of the desire of its members to make music," Darlington said. "There was no edict from above."
Said David, "We were not brought in as a group and told to form a quartet. We evolved along our own lines to our own drummer, as it were."
"We artistically, personally, even politically get along," Sturm added.
Work concluded, "We respect each other, and have learned how to make suggestions without causing rancor or insecurity." And the proof is in the quality of the music. "Whenever I hear piano quartet music performed on the radio in Canada or in Europe," said Owen, "invariably it is the Ames performing it. There are a few piano quartets in Europe but they have never seemed to approach the quality of excellence of the Ames. The decades of playing together by the Ames shows in their performance and in the diversity of their repertoire."
"All four are masters of their instruments," said Gilbert. "These performers are sought after. Very few university ensembles are under full-time professional management, not even string quartets.
"What an amazing thing to have this group on the Iowa State faculty."