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Mixed Company is written by Saint Paul Sunday staff, giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the show and the classical music they love. We welcome your online comments.

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September 9, 2005


When our studio and guest schedules don’t mesh, as sometimes happens, we need to find alternate recording spaces—especially when doing so means that we can capture programs with an ensemble as esteemed and exhilarating as the Guarneri String Quartet. Venturing beyond the controlled confines of the studio, though, also means navigating an increasingly noisy urban world. There are planes, trains, and automobiles; boom boxes and thunder; and, in the case of this program, the voices of happy third-graders.

At one point during the recording, there was a ruckus outside the windows of the makeshift control room we’d set up in the sacristy. When I went out to plead for a little quiet, I saw a circle of schoolchildren and teachers holding hands in the sun as they boisterously released butterflies they’d nurtured from cocoons (a science project no doubt). I’d just heard one of the great ensembles of the world perform Schumann’s “Clara” quartet only to stumble onto this joyous scene. It was something.

The circle broke as soon as the butterflies had scattered, and the kids jostled back to class. I returned to the circle inside, which was still in the process of releasing its own butterflies: glancing and refined music of Arriaga and the vivid songs that dance in and out of Kodály’s second quartet. The Guarneri sounded as magisterial as ever—urbane and warm and wise all at once.

And that was good because after the session, as we got into our cars to drive the quartet to the airport, two young men in heavy boots burst out of their own car across the street, slamming a third man onto the ground, where they began to pound and kick his face and body. A young woman came screaming out of her house and suddenly we were all shouting at them to stop—Bill doing so as he tried to wrest the men off their victim. The ugliness ended bloodily but soon (not soon enough) and the thugs sped off, leaving us jarred and saddened.

Contrary to what I might have expected, though, the Schumann ringing in my ears before the incident returned before too long, and I fell into no despair over art’s relative powerlessness over violence, as I sometimes have. Just the opposite—I felt lucky. And Schumann is hardly that fragile, not when brought to life as wholly as the Guarneri just had. He braved his demons by composing music as beautiful as any ever written—music that’s offered hope ever since. Real hope in the face of real darkness, not the easy fear of vengeful cowards.

Posted by Vaughn Ormseth at September 9, 2005 6:23 PM



The only question I pondered going into today's program was whether it could live up to Vaughn's elegant and beautifully written introduction.

But perhaps there is no other quartet in the world that can inspire this kind of eloquence other than the Guarneri.

The answer, of course, is an emphatic "yes". The Guarneri proved why they are, if not the best, then surely one of the two or three great quartets in the world today.

Over the past three years I've had the good fortune to hear them in their fall/winter/spring concerts at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. (These concerts are the best kept secret in Manhattan; but still always sell out the 800 seat auditorium.)

It was really great hearing them discuss the three pieces. Bring them back again, soon.

John Niesyn

PS: Bill: I suppose "blessed are the peacemakers" is the obvious passage regarding your post-recording heroics. Bravo.

By John Niesyn at September 11, 2005 10:12 PM


Dear John,
Thanks for the kind words. The Guarneri are indeed inspiring. Just so you know: we're scheduled to record them again this winter!

By Vaughn Ormseth at September 13, 2005 4:54 PM


Beautifully written prose, but kinda graphic. I was hoping you three caught the thugs and beat them with your instruments.

By Avid Listener at September 14, 2005 2:57 PM


Life takes such amazing turns, sometimes creating startling contrasts. Thanks to Mr. Ormseth for such a compelling recounting. I hope to read more from you in the future.

By Paul at September 14, 2005 3:26 PM


I helped raise a clutch (a flock? a brood? a murder?) of monarchs one summer. It was tedious to keep the caterpillars supplied with fresh milkweed, and you have no idea how much monarch caterpillars poop, but I burst into tears when I saw the first damp butterfly unfurling its wings.

Write more, and more often.

By Marlys at September 14, 2005 8:20 PM


Having had to leave New Orleans for NY, for who knows how long?, I must admit that tears sprang to my eyes when I heard this program, Bill' soft familiar voice in a strange place, and such beautiful music from the Rolls Royce of string quartets - each note tasted like ice cream. I've heard it now 2x here online and it sounds scratchy, but i'll listen to it again. The account of your recording it makes me love it all the more. Yes music is the hope we need right now, and now more than ever. --Luc (fan of the Guarneri and WWNO)

By Luc at September 18, 2005 5:12 PM


Dear Luc,

Among all else music does, it helps us heal. Best wishes to you and yours as you struggle through this next phase. We'll be back on in New Orleans when we can be but for now are happy to fine you in New York. Take care and keep writing.

By Vaughn Ormseth at September 19, 2005 11:00 AM