"Congratulations guys," a cigar-smoking agent in an old magazine cartoon says to four anxious musicians, "you're no longer the Baltimore String Quartet. You've been sold. From now on, you're the San Diego String Quartet."

And now it's coming true. A flock of young North American quartets are leading a resurgence of chamber music in concert halls, communities, festivals, and schools. And some of them are even relocating. The Thalea Quartet relocated en masse to Austin, Texas, because of San Francisco's "absurd" cost of living. The cellist of the Hausmann Quartet relocated from New York to San Diego because of a bi-coastal relationship.

The Calidore String Quartet's Carnegie Hall debut, 2016 © Michael Hershkowitz
The Calidore String Quartet's Carnegie Hall debut, 2016
© Michael Hershkowitz

And while it may be hard to see how young quartets are capable of scratching together a living in this exciting, uncertain time, with a recording industry under construction, an encouraging number of North American groups have emerged thanks to coordinated institutional support and enthusiastic public response. They are proving that young quartets with talent, hard work, great teaching, imagination, and luck can thrive, and in doing that they can impact classical music's future through the new repertoire they explore and the commitment and engagement they bring to their performances.

In fact, young North American quartets are being programmed in increasing numbers on major North American chamber music series and festivals. And while they don’t necessarily have the pedigree or audience base of older groups, they make up for it by bringing with them a new and different energy, a commitment to new music and living composers, provocatively integrated programs, and what one industry professional described as "an ability to better navigate the new promotional landscape."

The JACK Quartet's cellist Jay Campbell likes the results. "Audiences are much more receptive and responsive in basically all situations I'm encountering them – as long as the music is presented with care. If the audience sees we are fully committed, it's the best way to convince them to give new music a fair shake, admitting wryly, "of course, we also like to shake them up a bit."

Thalea Quartet © Thalea Quartet
Thalea Quartet
© Thalea Quartet

In talking to the Calder, Calidore, Callisto, Catalyst, Dover, Hausmann, JACK, and Thalea Quartets, I learned that in addition to developing their unique musical profiles, each has gained both professional and a personal footholds in the communities in which they reside. Many are so active in performance, leadership, and outreach roles that they are considered hometown heroes. And by using their footholds at prestigious musical schools and conservatories as base camps for their performing careers, they weave themselves into the fabric of the larger classical music world.

First they had dreams

Violist Eva Kennedy told me the Callisto's "ultimate goal" was to be able to dedicate themselves "fully and solely to the quartet." They consider making a living through quartet performances and engagements alone "not a completely unrealistic goal. We keep moving our career forward by taking advantage of every opportunity--performances, competitions, masterclasses and seminars, teaching opportunities, anything that we can. You can find wonderful opportunities and develop wonderful relationships in unexpected places so we just try to do as much as we can. And of course, above all, keep working hard at our craft."

Another violist, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, said the Dover Quartet hopes "to find more stability with something like a full-time residency at a university so that we are able to have more of a home life, while also touring for a good chunk of the year." Performance is what they do and it's their "first love," but they are looking for "a better balance so we aren’t on the road upwards of 250 days a year, are able to rehearse more and play at our highest potential, and connect to future generations of musicians and concert-goers through teaching and coaching."

The Dover Quartet landing in Newark from a long trip to Hong Kong © Dover Quartet
The Dover Quartet landing in Newark from a long trip to Hong Kong
© Dover Quartet

"From the beginning," Calidore violinist Ryan Meehan said, "we decided our work together would always be our number one priority." They started playing together at Colburn where they could concentrate on practicing and learning repertoire together "without having to take on gigs that might distract us from our objectives with the quartet." To this day Calidore does only a handful of musical activities outside of their quartet schedule. They're now String Quartet in Residence at the University of Delaware.

The life of string quartets is "grueling," says the Hausmann's cellist Alex Greenbaum, and our academic residency at San Diego State University provides an alternative lifestyle in which they impact the community. "A big part of it is going to public schools, being a resource for teachers, helping folks improve but also enhance the musical ecosystem I guess here. And we also do a lot of work, which isn't directly tied to our university residency including coaching amateurs," he smiled. "We even make house calls."

Thalea Quartet violinist Christopher Whitley feels "really lucky that right now the quartet can be our primary focus." It's why the Quartet all moved from San Francisco and relocated to Austin for the fully-funded University of Texas residency program. "While the quartet was our main career goal, we had all been teaching a ton, taking all the gigs we could, just to pay the rent and play in our quartet."

The Callisto Quartet in Weikersheim, Germany, for Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland © Callisto Quartet
The Callisto Quartet in Weikersheim, Germany, for Jeunesses Musicales Deutschland
© Callisto Quartet

Free time

As the Dover's Pajaro-van de Stadt says, "We play well over a hundred concerts a year, so to survive what we do is prioritize having chunks of time to ourselves, blocking off a few weeks here and there throughout the year to maintain our sanity.

The Calder's cellist Eric Byers, who has two young kids, teaches at the Colburn School, plays in the studios, plays cutting edge solo cello at the Mount Wilson Observatory and Joshua Tree National Park, and recently starred at the US première of Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Cello Concerto, looks forward to rock climbing. The Thalia's Whitley, an avid canoer until he discovered that he had to be practicing violin in the summers too, has yet to get on the river in Austin, "but it's a coming soon."

Calidore violinist Jeffrey Myers admits free time at home these days is quite a luxury. "Being home in and of itself is a refuge from the demands of our touring," he says. "If Ohio State football is on the TV, all the better!"

The Catalyst Quartet © Scott Jackson
The Catalyst Quartet
© Scott Jackson

When the Catalyst's cellist Karlos Rodriguez is not teaching, working in administration, playing in musical theater productions, solo and chamber music collaborations, recording, and writing a book on being a string quartet, he enjoys working on home renovations "like kitchen remodeling and other interior design elements."

The Dover's cellist Camden Shaw says that "touring nonstop, no matter how resilient or dedicated the artist, is unsustainable without a real commitment to life outside of work. Each one of us in the quartet has different ways of decompressing in between tours. Some if us will perform with other musicians to get a more diverse musical life; others will disappear into the woods for a while. Really it's about knowing yourself and what you personally need."

The good news

"We've never been busier," said the JACK's Campbell, "and I don't seeing it changing in the near future. There's never going to be a shortage of composers writing music, wanting to try new things, and that in itself generates a lot of work." He stressed that it's a "collaborative ecosystem because we're not approaching the performing circuit as just being us." Campbell feels like we're going through a Golden Period right now. "There are so many players that are so good," he explains, "and so many of them are actually deeply interested in the music. There are so many composers who are writing so much really interesting music. It 's a great time to be playing."