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A Chamber Ensemble’s Passionate Swan Song

New York Times

Many string quartets start out as a family and then over time morph into an institution. As long-serving members retire, new players join in, subtly altering the sound and style until only the name remains unchanged. The Tokyo String Quartet decided to retire as a family rather than continue with further changes in its lineup. On Saturday evening, the quartet, which was founded in 1969, gave a passionate and emotionally charged performance here at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival that the ensemble says will be its last.

In 2011 the sole remaining founding member of the quartet, the violist Kazuhide Isomura, and the second violinist, Kikuei Ikeda, who had joined in 1974, announced their decision to retire in the summer of 2013. Their colleagues, the first violinist Martin Beaver and the cellist Clive Greensmith, initiated the usual recruitment process to replace them. But in April 2012 they called off the search. On the quartet’s Web site, Mr. Beaver wrote that the players felt “the most fitting way we could honor and celebrate our quartet’s long and illustrious career was to bring it to a graceful close.”

On Saturday evening an audience of 700 filed into the exquisite redwood-and-cedar Music Shed of the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival to witness that graceful ending. It was gracious, too. In order to support fund-raising efforts toward much-need structural renovations of the shed, the quartet donated its fee for the evening — a gesture that was as generous as it was natural, given the ensemble’s 38-year association with this festival.

The Music Shed, built in 1906, is an acoustical gem. With its human dimensions and convivial seating arrangement, it has the feel of a town hall. What is played on that stage, the building suggests, matters. The members of the Tokyo Quartet presented three works that mattered to them personally: Haydn’s String Quartet in G (Op. 77, No. 1), Bartok’s String Quartet No. 6 and the String Quartet in G minor (Op. 10) by Debussy.