Twenty-one years of music: The Alexander String Quartet returns to play in Ford Chapel

The Alexander String Quartet continued its 21-year relationship with Allegheny with a visit to campus this week for private performances with students and a large concert in Ford Chapel. The Alexander Quartet serves as directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center in the College of Arts and Humanities at San Francisco State University. The group consists of Paul Yarbrough on viola, Sandy Wilson on cello, Zakarias Grafilo on first violin and Frederick Lifsitz on second violin.

Formed in 1981, the founding members were young, right out of school and dreaming of playing in a quartet. They worked to find time to practice outside of other jobs and commitments. Paul Yarbrough, a founding member and viola player, noted that to avoid going weeks without connecting, they often played late at night.

“When Sandy [Wilson, cello] and I met we sort of said ‘if you get your friend and I get my friend, let’s try it out’. So we all met in my living room in Manhattan and we read through some music and agreed to make a go of it. And that was the start, it was an adventure” Yarbrough said.

Despite starting off taking any performing opportunity they could, including children’s concerts in public schools, the group quickly excelled. A year after the group started playing, they became the first string quartet to win the Concert Artists Guild Competition. By 1985, the quartet received international recognition when they won the London International String Quartet Competition.

The group that performed this week has seen some changes from the group that formed back in 1981. Yarbrough, originally from Boston, along with Sandy Wilson on cello from Blyth, England are the only two founding members left in the group. Zakarias Grafilo from San Francisco joined the group as first violinist after he finished at UCLA in 2002, but the group had heard about him and his work as the Concert Master of the Youth Symphony since Grafilo was in high school. Frederick Lifsitz joined the group in 1987 as second violinist.

“I saw them on television, heard them on the radio and I went to a concert of theirs in 1986 in the fall. It was a fantastic concert […]. About two months later I got a phone call that their second violinist was going to leave and so I auditioned with them […].We met in my living room on a snowy day in January and read and then I joined them that spring and I’ve been with them ever since” Lifsitz said.

The group’s partnership with Allegheny began through conversation with members of the colleges faculty.

“It started in the living room of a friend. We had played a concert in Pittsburgh and after the concert we went to a party in a dear friend’s home who was a big patron of the arts and a big patron of Allegheny College. We met the president, Dan Sullivan, the then president of Allegheny, and talked to him about what we were doing […]. We came up that next year, and it worked beautifully. It was just a wonderful fit,” Lifsitz said.

For years, the quartet events on campus have been coordinated by Alec Chien, professor of music at Allegheny.

“He integrated everything so beautifully, he is very in-tune to us as musicians but also as teachers” Yarbrough said.

The quartet came to Allegheny for the first time in 1991. In 1995, Allegheny College granted each member an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in honor of their consistent devotion to the school and contribution to the arts. The relationship between the school and the quartet has slowly transformed into a very personal one, rather than one of business for the members.

“When we return to Allegheny, we just walk into this building and we see old friends […]. I feel like I’m part of the community and I’m only here four days a year. So there’s a continuity there that’s really quite amazing,” Lifsitz said.

Quartet 1
Quartet 1: Violist Will Yarbrough and cellist Sandy Wilson, members of the Alexander string quartet, perform in the Ford Chapel on Feb. 28 2013.


Quartet 2
Quartet 2: The Alexander string quartet drew audience members from across generations at their performance in the Ford Chapel on Feb. 28th 2013. The first notes of Mozart’s String Quartet No. 23 in F Major, their opening piece, were greeted by the babble of a small child.


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