On a cool, late June afternoon the members of the Minneapolis Quartet are wearing jeans and shorts with no shoes as they gather for a rehearsal in violinist Vali Phillips' living room. They're running through the first movement of the late Beethoven quartet they'll play on their final concert together.
It all seems informal but there's a deep musical discipline here. The musicians are meticulous about getting every note just right. They stop and start frequently until each phrase is played to the satisfaction of each member of the quartet.
"Personally this is the most gratifying musical group I've ever played in," cellist Joseph Johnson says. "I don't think that I'll ever get the same experience."
Johnson formed the Minneapolis Quartet six years ago when he invited three of his Minnesota Orchestra colleagues to join him for a performance of Bartok's Second String Quartet. They had so much fun that they decided to stay together, spending nearly as much time exploring the string quartet repertoire as playing with the orchestra.
The quartet has given Vali Phillips the musical freedom he doesn't find sitting in the violin section.
"As an orchestra player your hands are tied," he says. "You basically have to do what somebody else wants you to do: play the way they want you to play it. You don't get to express yourself. It's the conductor's vision for how he wants the piece to go and, like it or not, you have to do it his way. In the quartet we're all involved in the discussion."
Since forming in 2001, the Minneapolis Quartet has performed around five concerts a year. Turnout has been mixed but violist Kerri Ryan and violinist William Polk say there's a hunger for string quartet music in the Twin Cities.
"People want this," Ryan says.
Polk agrees: "I believe that there are people who want to hear great string quartets," he says. "In our opinion, it's the best form in classical music: four voices, perfectly matched together."
Polk disputes reports that the audience for chamber music is declining. He says that in his 15 years as a professional musician, he hasn't noticed any big changes.
Twin Cities cellist Laura Sewell, who chairs the service organization Chamber Music America, says string quartet music appeals to a devoted, if somewhat limited, audience but there seem to be more young groups than ever that are playing the music.
"There's way more than the market can bear but they're all good," she says. "They all deserve to make it. I'm just not sure they all will over the long haul. I hate to say it. It sounds very discouraging. It's so alluring to play string quartets."
Sewell says the Minneapolis Quartet will be missed. The group is breaking up because three of the musicians are leaving town. Kerri Ryan will be the new assistant principal viola with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Her husband, violinist William Polk, will go with her and will work a freelance musician. Joseph Johnson is taking a new position as principal cello with the Milwaukee Symphony.
As the quartet rehearses for its final concert, Johnson says his feelings are mixed.
"I'm really sad and I'm hoping I can keep it together on stage," he says. "But life does go on and it's time for all of us to move on and do the next thing."
As the members of the Minneapolis Quartet prepare to go their separate ways, they hope this won't be the last time they ever perform together.
They expect that there will be opportunities in the future to reunite and play the string quartet music they've worked hard learning over the past six years.