The Spontaneous Quartet

The origins of Quartetto Sorrento date back to the latter half of 2008, when Paula Simmons — violist, concert conductor, and co-owner of the Violin Shop in Sorrento Valley — received an email from Warren Gref of the California Chamber Orchestra. Gref was putting together a lineup for the upcoming Sunday-afternoon concert series at the Old Town Theater in Temecula. “I wrote him back and said I have a quartet,” says Simmons, when in fact she had nothing of the kind.

Her white lie was particularly daring because she knows how much work can go into putting together a quality quartet. “It’s extremely difficult,” says Simmons, “to find people that are compatible both musically and personality-wise.” As it turned out, she didn’t have to look far. Cellist Gordon Grubbs and both violinists — Alyze Dreiling and Greg Lawrence — are all (along with Simmons) members of San Diego’s Cabrillo Chamber Orchestra.

One thing that sets Quartetto Sorrento apart from other string quartets is that the two violinists take turns playing the lead. Switching roles within a string quartet is an unconventional approach, but so far, says Lawrence, “It’s been a serendipitous arrangement.”

On Friday, November 6, Quartetto Sorrento played their sixth show as part of the University of San Diego’s fall concert series. The concert was held in the French Parlor of USD’s Founders Hall. The 75-seat room is aptly named — parquet floors and gilded marble-top tables glisten beneath crystal chandeliers. The first few rows of chairs were of the cushy, French antique variety (the rest were plastic foldout chairs). Fifteen minutes before showtime, every chair was occupied and people were still lining up at the door. The ticket-taker improvised, dragging in ten or so thronelike chairs to fill up what little space remained in the back of the room.

As intimate and sumptuously appointed as the French Parlor is, one audience member complained that the room was not set up well for a string quartet. People seated in the back rows, she observed, did not have a good view of the musicians. “If you can’t see the players,” she said, “you might as well get a recording and listen to it at home.”

The audience, incongruous with the setting, was mostly San Diego casual, in jeans and khakis, although some women wore heels, and a few men wore ties. Concertgoers included USD students from the university’s “Introduction to Music” course as well as several musicians who have played with the members of Quartetto Sorrento. The members of Quartetto Sorrento wore black except for red ties for the men and red satin shirts for the women. Simmons snazzed up her outfit with a pair of four-inch platform stilettos, and Grubbs donned black-and-white polka-dotted suspenders.

The evening’s program began with “Quartetsatz,” an original composition by cellist Gordon Grubbs. In 2006, a botched shoulder replacement rendered Grubbs unable to play his instrument. Desperate to create music, he turned to composing instead. “Quartetsatz,” featuring a single movement, embodies what Grubbs describes as a “dark kind of tension,” representative of the turmoil he felt when he thought he might never be able to perform again.

The group moved into Mozart’s “String Quartet No. 14 in G Major, K387.” Mozart composed the piece in 1782 as the first of six string quartets he wrote in honor of Joseph Haydn — the father of both the string quartet and the symphony. As Dreiling introduced the piece, she looked and sounded every bit the part of music professor, reminding her students in the audience to listen for fragmentation and fugal entrances. Once she began to play, however, her cerebral persona fell away.

Claude Debussy’s “String Quartet in G Minor, Opus 10” stood out as the evening’s most complex piece. Violinist Greg Lawrence said that although his tastes lean toward the German and Italian masters, he has a newfound love for Debussy and considers “opus 10” a “magical” work. In contrast to Dreiling’s tranquil style, Lawrence writhes in his chair as he plays, embodying the intensity of the music to such an extent that his feet sometimes leave the ground.

Cellist Grubbs also composed the final piece of the evening, “Junto Otra Vez.” Like “Quartetsatz,” it was written during the time of his medical tribulations, but “Junto Otra Vez” (“together again”) has an optimistic and hopeful mood.

The members of Quartetto Sorrento said that although there were a couple of minor hiccups, the evening was full of some wonderful, spontaneous moments. Spontaneity, says Dreiling, is “one of the major joys of playing with a string quartet.”

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