Unlike, say, rock-and-roll bands, classical musicians in a quartet are not required to exhibit personalities as they perform. A tuxedoed homogeneity and a serious sameness of expression will do nicely, thank you. If the performers feel passionately or not about the music, have aches and pains of a physical or existential nature, harbor resentments toward each other, or guesstimate tax returns while sleepwalking through the Kochel Concerto No. 525 or “Memories" from Cats — we couldn’t care less. As we brunch in a North County bistro or fork wedding cake onto our plates at the reception, the music might be wallpaper, the musicians, potted ferns. If it’s a rock group, we think we want a little flamboyance and character with our 4/4 time, but aren’t Keith Richards, Ron Wood, and Charlie Watts really the same person when you get right down to it?
Well up the winding reaches of Soledad Mountain Road, four very different people have come together on a sultry August night to share wine, lasagne, the sunset, and their skills as musicians. Forty-one-year-old Ken Jerahian plays first violin; 42-year-old Sarah Agler provides vocals and second violin; Gordon Grubbs, 35, contributes cello; while Karen Childress-Evans, 45, provides viola and musical direction for Pacifica Strings, one of San Diego’s few long-lived string quartets.
Grubbs, a lean, bespectacled black man, wears shorts, a dark polo shirt, socks, and dress shoes. He seems to be the comedian of the group, yet the most elusive and private. As the musicians tune (that four-note sawing and occasional skirling associated with clearing one’s throat and fanning oneself with the program before the house lights dim), Grubbs, originally from Wichita, Kansas, is rattling off personal and musical jokes in a shorthand recognizable only to his fellow quartet members. Childress-Evans is the quickest to laugh, while Agler chuckles silently and Jerahian beams with pleasure. Grubbs is speaking so quickly, those outside the musical circle are at a loss as to what’s so funny.
Grubbs teaches music for a living and performs professionally whenever possible, often without the other quartet members and frequently in Mexico — La Paz, Mazatlan, and Ensenada, for example.
Jerahian is dressed in a white, button-down collared shirt, Levi’s, and sneakers. His two leg braces (a legacy from childhood polio) rest against a wall near his chair. The first violinist, with his thick, black hair streaked with traces of gray; deep-set, smiling dark eyes; and shoe-brush Armenian mustache has the appearance of a benevolent Uncle Joe Stalin. An electronics technician during the day, repairing such devices as TVs, stereos, VCRs, and video game players, Jerahian has been playing violin since he was seven years old. He holds a B.A. in music from University of San Diego.
Jerahian has played “in most of the local orchestras — uh, Jolla Civic, USD orchestra. From the age of 13 to 25, I played with the San Diego Youth Symphony.”
Grubbs and Childress-Evans are searching for misplaced sheet music to a Bach piece they’ll perform at an upcoming wedding. The violist is a petite, attractive blonde wearing a red blouse, a gray-and-red checked skirt, and red shoes. She finds the piece and sets it on her stand: “Air” by J.S. Bach. Childress-Evans plays a few tentative notes. She is accompanied immediately by four-year-old Sean Agler, who contributes a wheezing musical non sequitur on his child-size starter violin. His brother, two-year-old Nicky Agler, is offstage (that is, in his bedroom, not in the living room where the action is), crying operatically. Evidently, he has inherited his mother’s lung capacity, diaphragm control, and tonal dexterity.
Discussion of which Mozart pieces to perform (“Eine Kleitte Nachtmusik"), whether or not to include the Pachelbel Canon (“yeah, we have to”), Handel’s “Water Music,” the “Quartet versions of 2, 3 and 6,” “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” “Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Vivaldi” (Four Seasons), “Trumpet Voluntary” (the Clarke), and/or “that wedding thing by the guy from Peter, Paul and Mary” (“There Is Love”) resolves with a tentative list and the decision to run through Bach’s “Air.”
The piece is processional. The words “stately” or “courtly” are hard to avoid. Grubbs’s cello marks time with a descending scale of slow octaves beginning in the key of C. Jerahian and Agler sustain a middle C in unison and then part ways in a harmonic pavane away from the tonic note that grows increasingly complex and flows into A major and then D major scales — a pattern thoroughly familiar to audiences of a thousand popular love songs. Pacifica Strings render the piece with a grace and soulfulness I don’t usually associate with Bach, thinking of his music more in terms of prancing, mathematical, clockwork patterns than a slow ballet of emotion.
Agler, Jerahian, Grubbs, and Childress-Evans indeed seem to be sculpting “air.”
Sarah Agler is a round woman with a ready laugh and a smile behind large-framed glasses. She wears a blue floral print dress to her ankles. When she stands to sing, one might envision her in a horned Viking helmet and armor breastplate; when she opens her mouth, she can break your heart. As a violinist she is superb, which raises the question: Why second violin? The answer is that everyone in the quartet is very, very good and someone has to play the second violin parts. The term “second fiddle” is clearly a misnomer here since what Agler plays is hardly less accomplished than the first violin parts — merely different, harmonic, contrapuntal, and without which the center would not hold.
Agler has been playing since the age of eight and received a bachelor’s degree in violin from the University of Nevada in Reno, followed by a master’s in voice performance from Indiana University.
“I didn’t tell anybody I was a violinist for eight years,” the musician-singer and mother of two says. “I was only singing. But there was more of a need for violinists than sopranos. I did a lot of moving around, performing in operas.” Agler moved to San Diego in 1984 and won first place in the Met (San Diego Metropolitan Opera) auditions in 1986. Agler met Childress-Evans while playing with the Grossmont Symphony.