mark Steinberg

Mark Steinberg interview: combatting complacency

After performing at Chamber Music Northwest, Brentano Quartet's founding violinist talks about commissioning new music, collaborations, multimedia concerts, and more


The Brentano String Quartet‘s name — after Antonie Brentano, Beethoven’s legendary “Immortal Beloved” — adds a romantic flair to a group of musicians already celebrated for being, in the words of the London Independent, “passionate, uninhibited, and spellbinding.”

I would always go out of my way to hear the Brentano (Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin, violins, Misha Amory, viola, and Nina Lee, cello). It’s much more than their technical prowess. There’s something about their playing that convinces me they have surrendered their egos to the music and are committed to doing what each composer most desires.

Brentano Quartet (Mark Steinberg, left) performed at Chamber Music Northwest’s 2017 Summer Festival. Photo: Juergen Frank.

The quartet returned to Chamber Music Northwest on July 22 and 23 with violist Hsin-Yun Huang to play three seldom heard viola quintets by Mozart, Brahms, and Mendelssohn. First violinist Mark Steinberg graciously submitted to an interview on Friday, July 21 before the group’s scheduled rehearsal. I had talked with Steinberg before and knew him to be poetic and imaginative. He’s small and thin, somewhere in his 40s, with a huge smile and an easy laugh. He seems to have unbounded energy for the task at hand, whether it’s giving an interview or playing an amazingly difficult passage. He talks fast, laughs often, and obviously loves his subject matter.

Why Viola Quintets?

I tell Steinberg that I’ve always loved add-ons to the string quartet and wondered what it is about the viola quintets that is so special. I knew that Mozart had an affinity for this group of instruments, that the viola was his favorite, and that he loved being in the middle of things (the viola’s pitch range lies between the quartet’s cello and violins).

“I think a large part of it is that people just got inspired by Mozart. There’s something about the viola adding another dimension to the quartet — the added texture, layers of counterpoint. Mozart’s viola quintets inspired Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. It’s like Haydn with the string quartet. Once people saw how you could do all that with the string quartet, then everyone wanted to try!”

Longevity’s Lessons

The Brentano has just celebrated its 25th anniversary and I congratulated Steinberg on sticking together and growing together, noting that it only makes for more polished performances. He agreed, sort of.

“On the whole it’s a good thing. We do have a lot of shared history to draw on, so we are much better at sounding okay faster. The reason why it sounds okay is that we have our ways of dealing with that language together. But that’s very different from a great performance. Very, very different.”


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