Beethoven's blazing saddles.

Beethoven's blazing saddles. (Courtesy of the musicians)

The glass ceiling has in many ways been shattered, but in classical music it remains pretty much intact. Take a look at orchestral musicians who play "female" instruments like the flute. A whole of them have been men, are men.

So it's right for the Colorado Quartet to toot its own horn, as it were, and remind us that it was the first all-female foursome to win the Banff Competition and the Naumburg Award, two major feats back-to-back.

And it's also right to talk up the fact that it was the first all-female ensemble to take on Beethoven's entire repertoire for string quartet. For all the enlightenment and reconstruction of gender norms that American high art has gone through in the last 40 years, Beethoven is still considered, though few will say so, a manly man's music.

Fortunately, Colorado offers a "strong, feminine hand."

"Several years ago, we were invited to Berlin to participate in a forum being presented by Cornelia Bartsch, a doctoral candidate, whose thesis was the question of whether Beethoven wrote 'masculine' or 'feminine' music," wrote violist Julie Rosenfeld in an email message. After a week of considering the entire quartet cycle, "There was no answer. We realized while in Berlin that we were the first all-female group to perform the entire Beethoven Quartet cycle in Western Europe, and also in North America."

Skeptics may put that to the test at a concert March 8 (rescheduled from an October date) by the quartet at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts at UConn. There, the doubting Thomas will find a program dedicated to Beethoven's quartets Ops. 18, 95 and 132.

It's called the Colorado but Connecticut has been the quartet's longtime home. Rosenfeld and cellist Katie Schlaikjer serve on the music faculty at UConn. With violinist D. Lydia Redding and violist Marka Gustavsson, they have taught at Yale and other East Coast schools. They love to teach children and even prisoners. In fact, they were central to something called the Bard Prison Initiative.

It's fashionable now to record the entire cycle of a composers work for a particular instrumentation, but that goes double for a chamber ensemble. I suppose it's better marketing than to pick and choose favorites. The Emerson String Quartet did Mendelssohn (among others), the St. Lawrence String Quartet did Shostakovich. In 2010, the Colorado recorded Beethoven on the Parnassus label.

"I must say, it was excruciatingly difficult," Rosenfeld said. "It also felt like the sum of a life's work. Now that it is finished, I can only hope that it is meaningful to someone who may listen to it. After 30 years of playing quartets, I still feel that Beethoven's music is the most profoundly uplifting that I have encountered, and the most meaningful to study and perform."

Of the late quartets, Fanfare Magazine said: "The Colorado Quartet tears into these works with a combined tension, cohesion, grace, and complete understanding of the music … If it's the music and what the music says that interests you, well, this is the only set of the late quartets you'll ever need. Buy it, and marvel. These four women bring Beethoven to intense, blazing life."

"I realize our concert is occurring in March, which is Women's History Month, but it was originally in October and was cancelled due to a power outage. We tend to get a lot of concerts in March, so perhaps we are still ghettoized, but I hope not," said Rosenfeld.

"In the U.S. there are a lot more opportunities for women than there were 50 years ago, even though the top four quartets still contain no women members," she said. "I think most women would prefer to be judged on their merits. I know I would."


Colorado Quartet

Pre-concert talk at 6:45 p.m. Concert at 7:30 p.m. March 8. Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts, 2132 Hillside Road, University of Connecticut, Storrs.$28-$30. (860) 486-4226, jorgensen.uconn.edu.

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