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Beethoven's Back in Buffalo

Slee Beethoven String Quartet Cycle kicks off next Friday

Beethoven’s coming back to Buffalo at the end of the month. Well, not Ludwig van Beethoven himself, but next Friday the first concert in the Slee Beethoven String Quartet Cycle begins the annual performance of all of Beethoven’s string quartets at the University at Buffalo. The quartets been performed every year at UB since 1955, due to the generosity of the late Frederick and Alice Slee.

While performances of the complete Beethoven string quartets take place every so often in major cities and at select musical festivals, no other city in the world has an ongoing half century plus tradition of presenting all the quartets on a yearly basis.

The famed Budapest String Quartet, who long served as the resident string quartet at UB, performed the entire Beethoven cycle for many years back in the 1950s and 1960s. After the members of the Budapest retired, the cycle has been performed by some of the highest profile string quartets in the country, including, among others, the Guarneri String Quartet, who performed the complete cycle the year that the newly built Slee Hall was dedicated back in the mid-1980s. In other years, several quartets have each performed one or more programs in the cycle, as is the case this year, with six different groups performing the programs which are divided into two parts, presented about a month apart.

This year’s Beethoven cycle also presents a new twist on a venerable tradition. A couple of years ago, Phil Rehard, concert manager of Slee Hall, got a phone call out of the blue from David Finckel, cellist of the Emerson String Quartet. Finckel is also the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, along with his wife pianist Wu Han. He wanted to know if UB would be interested in collaborating with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in presenting the Beethoven cycle using artists who had appeared on the Society’s programs.

After consulting with the powers-that-be at the university, Rehard got the go-ahead for the project, and the two-year gestation period is about to bear fruit. In a recent interview, Rehard commented on the high profile that the Slee Cycle has among classical musicians. “It’s amazing, but almost every string player that I meet knows about the Slee Beethoven Cycle,” he noted. Rehard, who travelled to New York City this week for an annual meeting of concert presenters and artist’s agents, expected even more questions this year about the Slee Cycle. “Since the University at Buffalo will be partnering this year with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, perhaps the most prestigious chamber music presenting organization in the country, I expect a lot of people will want to know how UB managed to pull it off.”

As most Buffalo chamber music aficionados know, the terms of the Slee bequest specify the exact order in which quartets are to be performed. In a gracious bow to this tradition, the CMS of Lincoln Center will use the same sequence, as noted on its Web site: “Since 1955, the world’s most highly regarded string quartets have traveled to University at Buffalo to present Beethoven’s quartets in the precise order that is known as the Slee Cycle. CMS pays homage to this historical tradition by presenting the quartets in the order of the Slee Cycle.”

The philanthropy of Frederick and Alice Slee remains a continuing gift to our community. The Beethoven cycle gets underway on Friday, January 22 at 7:30pm, the starting time for all performances, in Lippes Concert Hall in Slee Hall with a performance by the Brentano String Quartet, who will also present a master class, on Saturday, January 23 at 10am in Baird Recital Hall that is open for public observation. On Monday, January 25, the Daedalus Quartet is featured in the second program, while on Tuesday, January 26, the Borromeo String Quartet plays the third program of the cycle. The Pacifica Quartet, a local audience favorite, opens the second group of concerts with a program on Thursday, February 18, that is preceded by a master class at 3:30pm in Baird Recital Hall also open for public observation. The Penderecki Quartet replaces the originally scheduled performance by the Miami Quartet, who had to withdraw due to the injury of one of its members, for the fifth program on Tuesday, February 23. The final installment in the cycle will be performed by the Miró Quartet on Thursday, February 25.

Buffalo music lovers continue to flock to the annual Slee Beethoven Cycle, as exemplified by retired clinical scientist John Loder, who has been attending most of the performances since the 1990s. “The more familiar I become with the quartets, the more I enjoy exposure to each group’s approach,” he says. “I am not a musician and I am sure that I miss a lot, but I like to think I can detect a superb from a so-so performance. Each new performance might be the next luminous one. The world today has a huge number of quartets doing this repertoire, more than ever before, and even the average performances are worth hearing, as Beethoven’s heart and head were fully in each of the compositions.”

Loder also enjoys attending the free Master Classes: “Absolutely as educational and mind-bending as you can imagine, hearing the seasoned groups gently but thoroughly dissect the students’ efforts. I feel I get at least as much pleasure from them as from a dandy concert. And the changes they bring about are terrific.”

By the way, there is one important difference between hearing all six concerts at UB, as opposed to Lincoln Center. Six adult tickets purchased in advance at UB cost $72; six tickets at Lincoln Center will set you back $290. And at UB, admission to the master classes is free.

Advance tickets are $12; UB faculty/staff/alumni and senior citizen tickets are $9; student tickets are $5. At the door: $20, $15, and $8. Tickets are available at the Slee Hall box office or at any Ticketmaster outlet. For more information, call 645-2921 or visit

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