Since being founded more than 40 years ago, the Guarneri String Quartet has been a frequent guest in Utah. By the reckoning of first violinist Arnold Steinhardt, the ensemble has played in the Beehive State more than two-dozen times. "We've given at least 25 concerts in Utah," he said by phone.
Next week, the venerable group (which, besides Steinhardt, includes second violinst John Dalley, violist Michael Tree and cellist Peter Wiley) will be returning to the state, this time to Provo, where they will give a master class and concert at Brigham Young University on Thursday.
It's billed as a Primrose Memorial Concert. Steinhardt said the Guarneri agreed to call it that out of respect for its namesake, violist Wiliam Primrose, who taught at BYU during the last three years of his life.
Steinhardt first met Primrose in the early 1950s at the Curtis Institute of Music, where Steinhardt was a student. Although he never performed with him professionally, Steinhardt regards Primrose highly. "We admired him tremendously. He was a great musician and a great person."
On the program for Thursday's concert is Bela Bartok's Quartet No. 2; Joseph Haydn's Quartet in D major, op. 20, no. 4; and Bedrich Smetana's Quartet No. 1 in E minor ("From My Life").
The Guarneri is meticulous in its programming choices. "We try to find the right combination of works for our concerts," Steinhardt said. That can be difficult, though, because "the repertoire is so stunning. There are so many incredible works."
One of the reasons the quartet literature is so rewarding is that the medium challenges composers, Steinhardt said. "It forces composers to reach beyond their limits. These works speak from the heart. It's hard for the listener and the performer not to open their hearts to this music.
"It also keeps us fresh as a group. We're always finding something new and exciting in the pieces we play. It's always a revelation."
Bartok's quartets are a favorite with the foursome. "He's quite an extraordinary composer," Steinhardt said. The Second, written during World War I, is as powerful and gripping today as it undoubtedly was 90 years ago when it was first played. "I have a feeling he had a dim outlook on the future of the world, yet in the Second he's also appealing for some order."
While the Guarneri is celebrated for its interpretations of the standard repertoire, it has also championed new music for much of its existence. Later this season, the group will join the Johannes Quartet in premiering William Bolcom's Octet. "We're looking forward to it. We're going to be touring with this program in the second half of this season and also next season."
Besides being a remarkable violinist and chamber musician, Steinhardt has also become a respected writer, with two volumes of memoirs to date. "Someone who has been around a long time like I have has a lot of stories to tell."
His most recent book, "Violin Dreams," was published last year. "I loved writing it," Steinhardt said. Unlike his earlier book, "Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony," the new one details Steinhardt's love of the violin and also his life long love affair with the Chaconne from J.S. Bach's D minor Violin Partita.
As a bonus, the book also includes a CD with two recordings Steinhardt made of the Chaconne, separated by 40 years. The first was recorded in the mid-1960s and is still available today. The second was recorded last year. "It's really two different people playing it, in a sense. You can see the progression of a violinist in those two performances."You change as you get older, and you're playing changes, too. You bring a different perspective to your performances, and I think that is reflected in these recordings."
If you go . . .
What: Guarneri String Quartet
Where: de Jong Concert Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, Brigham Young University, Provo
When: Thursday, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $12, $8 students (with ID)
Web: performances.byu.eduAlso: free master class, Madsen Recital Hall, Harris Fine Arts Center, BYU, Provo, Thursday, 11 a.m.