High Plains Chamber

Why the Amarillo-based Harrington String Quartet feels at home on the range

The Harrington String Quartet: (l-r), Keith Redpath,  Joanna Mendoza, Emmanuel Lopez, Annie Chalex
The Harrington String Quartet: (l-r), Keith Redpath, Joanna Mendoza, Emmanuel Lopez, Annie Chalex

Amarillo is in that part of Texas that gets overlooked. Not so many people travel there, but millions have passed through it: Francisco Coronado in the early 1500s, cattle drives north, and wagon trains heading west. It has grown up around the crossroads of rail lines and Route 66.

Amarillo doesn't have the musical mystique of its neighbor Lubbock -- no Buddy Holly or Joe Ely and no four-year university to give hipness a place to take root. It's not thought of as an arts mecca, but it can make some heady claims to culture: Georgia O'Keeffe taught at Amarillo High; Stanley Marsh 3's Cadillac Ranch (part artwork, part roadside attraction) is the most widely recognized piece of sculpture in Texas; and sculptor Robert Smithson died there in 1973 while working on his unfinished Amarillo Ramp. And it is home to the Harrington String Quartet, which makes its third appearance with the Austin Chamber Music Center's annual summer festival on July 16 and 17.

The place suits Chilean-born cellist Emmanuel Lopez, who came to the Texas Panhandle in 1991 after a musical education at the University of Connecticut, Yale School of Music, and Juilliard School of Music. "I took an instant liking to the area," Lopez says. "I suffer from claustrophobia, and I was itching to get out of the Northeast. I just didn't expect that I'd get this far away.

"There is the big sky and the open fields, which I loved, but I found I liked the pace and how people related to one another. They have a different way of living [that] you can't find back East. People are down to earth -- they say good morning. There is a real sense of community."

In the case of the late Don and Sybil Harrington, that small-town sense of community translated into big-time philanthropy. "Harrington" is a name you see on a lot of things, and not just in Amarillo: the Harrington Cancer Center in town and the Boy Scouts' Camp Don Harrington south of town; UT-Austin's Harrington Fellows program, which thrives on a $30 million endowment; and the Sybil B. Harrington College of Fine Arts and Humanities at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, where the Harrington Quartet members -- first violinist Annie Chalex and violist Joanna Mendoza, both with the group since 1997; second violinist Keith Redpath, who joined this year; and cellist Lopez -- form the core of the string faculty. Sybil Harrington underwrote 15 new productions, two gala concerts, and 13 Metropolitan Presents telecasts for the New York Metropolitan Opera, and many of the Matisse, Chagall, and Monet paintings that the couple collected now hang in the Phoenix Museum of Art.

The spirit of the Harringtons' concern for the community suits Lopez's approach to a musical career. "You are part of a link," he says. "Here you are making a real difference. It is more significant to be in a place where you are needed."

For Lopez, that can be seen in his 22 years with the Harrington Quartet -- he is its senior member -- and in the musical life outside the quartet that he shares with his wife Eleonora, who teaches cello at Amarillo College. Along with solo performing opportunities they enjoy at West Texas A&M, they are first-chair players with the Amarillo Symphony.

Surprisingly, perhaps, for an orchestra in a small West Texas city, the group's program isn't limited to overplayed standards and pops; it features a healthy mix of 20th- and even 21st-century music in the coming season. "A music director has to be very careful," Lopez says. "Symphony audiences are still conservative -- they like classical music, and they love the classics. He has to worry about attendance and finances. He has to think of the needs of the musicians and of the audience and balance his own wish to keep a contemporary attitude toward music."

By comparison, the Harrington ensemble has more freedom. "Our quartet audience is more willing to be exploratory," Lopez says, "and we play contemporary music that is accessible. We don't have to stick with the standards."

In the coming season, the Harrington Quartet will have played all 18 of Beethoven's quartets, as well as George Crumb's Black Angels for amplified instruments. It has also played two quartets by Charles Fitts at the Festival-Institute at Round Top.

The balance that the quartet strives for is reflected in its July 17 program: Beethoven's Op. 18, No 4; Leos Janácek's seldom-heard Second Quartet ("Intimate Letters"); and Shostakovich's Piano Quintet, performed with pianist (and Austin Chamber Music Center director) Felicity Coltman.

The Harrington ensemble deserves a great deal of credit for giving folks on the High Plains a chance to hear Brahms, Beethoven, and Bartok chamber music live, but Amarillo alone is too small of a market for the ensemble to stay home. It has performed in New York, Chicago, and Milwaukee, and as far away as England, France, and Canada. And it has recorded for Naxos and CRI (Composers Recordings Inc.).

The Harrington first appeared with the chamber-music festival in 1999 when visa problems sidelined the Sorrel Quartet. While the Amarillo ensemble had already been booked for a residency in Las Cruces, N.M., it made special arrangements to fly in for the concert. "We got to Austin in the middle of a huge storm, and they closed the airport just after we arrived," Lopez says. "We made it just in time."

Fifty years ago only a handful of musicians had careers based on playing in a string quartet -- a very short list headed by the Budapest, Fine Arts, and the Juilliard quartets. But in the 1960s, many young classical musicians found their voices in chamber music. They liked having the freedom to choose the repertoire or interpretation that musicians in orchestras didn't have. The string quartet became classical music's answer to the garage band, and they proliferated wildly. Today, there aren't quite as many string quartets as there are, say, Starbucks, but the musical landscape is rich with them -- both general practitioners who are keeping the classics alive and specialists who are proving more successful than the high-maintenance symphony orchestras at getting new music to a new audience.

Although the string quartet may be classical music's most vital medium right now, Lopez admits that as with any job, at times one gets lost in the details. He speaks of a coaching session with Peter Salaff, a founding member of the Cleveland Quartet, a Sixties band that has been a model for the many American quartets that have flourished since then. "He asked what we were thinking of in a particular passage," Lopez says. The question caught them off guard. Salaff suggested: "How about that you are alive to play this music?"

"That," says Lopez, "puts it all into perspective."


2003 Austin Chamber Music Center Festival Schedule

The 2003 ACMC Festival, "One Muse, Many Voices," kicked off on July 8 and continues through July 24 at various locations. Below is a schedule to the remaining public performances. For more information, call 454-0026 or visit www.austinchambermusic.org.

Duo Turgeon -- works by Stravinsky, Haydn, and Martynov performed by the husband-and-wife musical team of Anne Louise-Turgeon and Edward Turgeon, free. July 10, noon, at Central Presbyterian Church.

Festival Artists -- matinee concert for the whole family featuring works by Stravinsky, Haydn, and Martynov. July 12, 2pm, at Austin Children's Museum.

Dancing on 352 Keys -- pianists Susan Allen, Felicity Coltman, Fedora Horowitz, Elden Little, Anne Louise-Turgeon, and Edward Turgeon tackling works by Weber, Stravinsky, Bizet, Brahms, Gurt, Joplin, Gershwin, Rimsky-Korsakoff, Gillock, Sousa, etc. July 15, 7:30pm, at Congregation Agudas Achim.

Harrington String Quartet -- Amarillo-based ensemble performs works by Janácek, Webern, and Haydn, free. July 16, 7:30pm, at Huston-Tillotson College.

Harrington String Quartet: Depths of Insight -- Amarillo-based ensemble performs works by Beethoven, Janácek, and Shostakovich. July 17, 7:30pm, at Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School.

Virtuosity on Display -- works by Mozart, Britten, and Hummel performed by festival artists. July 19, 7:30pm, at Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School.

Amadeus Trio: A Trio of Treasures -- accomplished trio performing piano trios by Cassado, Shostakovich, and Mendelssohn. July 22, 7:30pm, at Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School.

Duo Turgeon: Two Pianos Plus -- festival regulars Anne Louise-Turgeon and Edward Turgeon joined by horn, cellos, and percussion for works by Schumann, Gutavino, and Bartok. July 24, 7:30pm, at Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School.

Festival Finale -- Festival Arts Quintet concert dedicated to Austin composer and educator Kent Kennan, with Kennan's Piano Quintet and works by Opp and Jones. July 24, 7pm, at Helm Fine Arts Center, St. Stephen's School.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Chamber Music Center, Austin Chamber Music Center Festival, Harrington String Quartet, Amarillo, Francisco Coronado, Route 66, Lubbock, Buddy Holly, Joe Ely, Georgia O'Keeffe, Amarillo High, Stanley Marsh 3, Cadillac Ranch, Robert Smithson, Amarillo Ramp, Emmanuel Lopez, University of Connecticut, Yale School of Music, Juilliard School of Music, Don Harrington

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