The American String Project is Expanding the String-Orchestra Literature
The conductorless American String Project has imagination and a dream team of world-class players
“Maria would correctly say that the orchestra I want to play in doesn’t exist,’ says double bassist and arranger Barry Lieberman, referring to Maria Larionoff, his wife and collaborator. ‘She’s probably right, partly because what I really love is to play string music—I love the literature of the string quartet.”
During the month of May each year, Lieberman realizes his dream when an ever-changing lineup of 15 of the most celebrated string players in North America comes together as the American String Project for a week of preparation and performance at Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, the home of the Seattle Symphony. The ensemble primarily presents arrangements of expanded string quartets for string orchestra, with double bass below and additional strings above.
Comprised of celebrated concertmasters, university professors, and renowned soloists, the project holds no lack of leadership in its ranks. Yet the string orchestra operates without a conductor. Members alternate in the position of leader and chairs change for every piece. Behind it all is Lieberman, artist-in-residence at the University of Washington. Lieberman’s concept of expanded arrangements developed over more than a decade, encouraged by Larionoff, who is a violinist and concertmaster at the Seattle Symphony.
Lieberman’s expanded arrangements are experimental by nature, but he also considers himself a purist. “You can hate what we do, and that’s okay,” he says, a smile emerging below his trademark mustache. “I am a purist in that I’ll never, ever add notes or change the structure of the piece or anything like that.
“All we’re doing is expanding the sonic version of the quartet.”
The second floor of Larionoff and Lieberman’s home offers a sweeping view of the Cascade Range beyond Lake Washington. The furnishings match the mid-century modern architectural style, all carefully collected at local thrift stores and garage sales. With two beloved golden retrievers curled up at his feet, Lieberman explains how the project’s approach differs from simply adding bass to a string quartet. “When you add the bass, and you multiply strings above it, balancing the addition of the bass, then it works. Basically, you’ve turned a quartet into a string symphony.”
The project places five violins in the first section and four in the second violin section, along with three violas, two cellos, and double bass.
Now entering its eighth year, the 2010 American String Project arrangements have already been sent to members, complete with bowings dictated by the leader of the piece, in preparation for intensive rehearsals prior to the May 20–23 recitals. This year, the project will adjust the program to feature two pieces each night for three nights. It will begin with a performance by the principal players of the string quartet as originally intended and offering the audience an opportunity to ask questions before they hear the expanded arrangement.
This year, renowned violinist and concertmaster Alexander Kerr will be joining the project for the first time. Among the returning members are violinists Jorja Fleezanis, Stephanie Chase, and Frank Almond, and violists David Harding and Adam Smyla.
“What makes it particularly fun and difficult at the same time is that Barry and Maria always choose repertoire that is quite demanding. I’ve played chamber music all my life,” says project member Arek Tesarczyk, soloist, chamber musician, and cellist with the Minnesota Orchestra. “I hear pieces that are new to me and they are challenging. They usually pick pieces that have never been done by a string ensemble, and that’s what’s so special about the String Project.”
The 2010 recital will feature Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 9; the Verdi String Quartet in A minor; Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 2; Haydn’s Op. 64, No. 4; Mendelssohn’s E minor quartet; and Brahms’ Op. 111. As in the past, each performance will be recorded with the best performances released on MSR Classics.
Not only is the repertoire difficult and the rehearsal time tight, the act of blending within the section requires heightened attention, Larionoff says. “It’s a lot harder. If you have one weak link, it really sticks out. You have to play in the same part of the bow. You have to clue in on the articulation, what the stroke is, the length of the notes, and the endings of the phrases. It’s a lot harder to play the first violin part of a string quartet with four other people than it is to play it by yourself,” she says. “The kind of player that comes to the String Project likes that challenge. They like that level of intense difficulty for a week. I think that’s part of the appeal.”
The cohesiveness of the project’s recordings to date is a testament to the seamless quality that enables the arrangements to soar through even the most difficult passages.
“It’s 15 minds acting as one—that kind of intensity of concentration,” renowned soloist and New York University violin professor Stephanie Chase says of working within the conductorless format. She has led several sessions and contributed several arrangements to the project over the years, including virtuosic works by Sarasate.
Since rehearsal time is limited to two intensive days, the leader of each piece must develop an efficient rehearsal strategy, while also welcoming input.
“It’s a very collaborative process,” she says, “but I should say it’s derived from the leader to begin with, with everybody else contributing on top of that. Virtually every stand is deeply involved.”
For months leading up to each performance, Lieberman internalizes every piece, often asking opinions of others and making last-minute adjustments to the arrangement. “One cello part goes to the cellos and one cello part goes to me [on bass]. So the only arrangement is really two things: It’s where I add the bass—or not—and certain places where there should just be solo players as in the original string quartet—or maybe just a solo violin playing against the full complement of string players.”
Sometimes the cello part is not playable on bass, and other times, Lieberman wonders if composers such as Shostakovich would have written the quartets in an expanded format if they had felt that the parts would have been attainable for entire sections at the time.
“Did they actually think in terms of four voices, or did they think on a bigger spectrum?” he muses.
This sense of musical adventure is not lost on the other members of the Project. “This yearly gathering for one week feels like an exploration of uncharted ground, even though in many cases, it is repertoire we know well in its original chamber versions,” says Jorja Fleezanis, former concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra and now professor of violin at Indiana University, who met Lieberman when the two were still students at the Cleveland Institute.
“The challenges are to hear the original work take on ‘colossal-izing’ by deepening the expressive wells with this enriched string sonority, particularly the added low bass octave, and, most importantly, the required virtuosity of ensemble playing and leadership skills needed to steer around the same corners that a nimble string quartet would, only with a wagonload of extras—and all this without a conductor!”
Lieberman and Larionoff envision the project continuing for another ten years, recording live performances each year, and possibly touring.
For now, they remain focused on preparing for the recital in May. “There’s something about being with really great players who have all accomplished really challenging things, and they’re all sitting there together. They’re sharing a stand, and they’re getting though the piece together as a team,” Larionoff says. “It’s like having a dream team.”
What Lieberman and Larinoff Play
Barry Lieberman plays a Giovanni Paolo Maggini bass, circa 1597, purchased from the late London Symphony Orchestra principal double bassist Stuart Knussen. “For 200 years, the bass lived in the monastery in Brescia, Italy, where it was probably played by Vivaldi. It later moved to London, where Bernhardt Fendt, a famous English maker, cut it down to make it more playable for orchestral and solo performance.” Lieberman also owns a John Lott , Sr., bass, circa 1820, which was formerly owned by Knussen’s stand partner in the LSO. Lieberman owns several gold mounted bows by Reid Hudson—his favorite has an ivory frog.
Maria Larionoff plays a 1678 Nicolo Amati grand-pattern violin. She owns two bows by Paul Siefried and one Hill bow formerly owned by renowned concertmaster Steven Staryk. —M.S.