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For chamber music devotees, the string quartets of Beethoven and Shostakovich tower above all others, revered for their originality, spiritual quest, and epic accomplishment. San Francisco’s Alexander String Quartet has distinguished itself with full-cycle recordings and concert tours of this endlessly satisfying repertory, and is an important advocate of new music through over 25 commissions and numerous premiere performances.

The ensemble will perform early- and late-career quartets by Shostakovich (No. 1 and No. 14, from 1938 and 1973) alongside the greatest of Beethoven’s Rasumovsky Quartets, the C Major, Op. 59, No. 3, 8 p.m. today at the Williams Center for the Arts.

Tickets cost $20 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

Alexander String Quartet is comprised of Zakarias Grafilo and Frederick Lifsitz, violin; Paul Yarbrough, viola; and Sandy Wilson, cello. The ensemble is serving a three-day residency with presentations March 6-7 at Kirkland Village in Bethlehem, an Easton public school, and a Friends of the Williams Center engagement at Lafayette’s Chateau Chavaniac.

The quartet is making a return engagement at the Williams Center, having performed in March 2003 with the Newman-Oltman Guitar Duo in a performance of Laments and Dances from the Irish with readings by Frank McCourt.

“They made such an impact in that visit with their residency performances and educational work that they have been invited to be featured ensemble on March 8,” says Ellis Finger, director of the Williams Center.

Since 1981, Alexander String Quartet has performed in the major music capitals of four continents, securing its standing among the premier ensembles of its kind. In 1999, BMG Classics released the quartet’s nine-CD set of the Beethoven cycle on its Arte Nova label to tremendous critical acclaim. The quartet has also recorded works of Mozart, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Schumann, and others on the FoghornClassics label.

The New York Times calls Alexander String Quartet “an unusually fine group – musically, technically, in just about any way one wants to view it.”

“This is a group deep in its element, firm in its stride,” states the Los Angeles Times.

“The Alexander String Quartet combines the spark of youth with a singleness of purpose usually reserved for more seasoned ensembles,” reports The Washington Post in a concert review. “The musicians’ controlled exuberance was unflagging and consequently produced superlative accounts of Beethoven, Barktók and Mendelssohn.”

The ensemble’s annual calendar of concerts continues to include engagements at major halls throughout North America and Europe. The quartet has appeared at Lincoln Center, the 92nd Street Y, and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City; Jordan Hall in Boston; the Library of Congress and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C.; and major chamber music societies and universities across the North American continent. Recent overseas tours have brought the group to the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, France, Greece, the Republic of Georgia, and the Philippines.

Among the many distinguished artists to collaborate with the Alexander String Quartet are pianists Menahem Pressler, Gary Graffman, Jeremy Menuhin, James Tocco, and Roger Woodward; guitarist Manuel Barrueco; clarinetists Eli Eban, Charles Neidich, Joan Enric Lluna, and Richard Stolzman; cellist Sadao Harada; and soprano Elly Ameling.

Along with the continuation of various Beethoven and Shostakovich cycles and annual residencies at Baruch College in New York, Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., and St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., the 2004-2005 season included a four-concert series of Brahms’ chamber music for San Francisco Performances and collaborations with such distinguished artists as pianist Jeremy Menuhin and clarinetist Eli Eban. In June 2004, Alexander String Quartet collaborated with the David Sánchez Quartet in a presentation by SFJazz of an extremely rare performance of “Focus,” an Eddie Sauter composition written for Stan Getz. A recording of the complete set of Mozart “Haydn” Quartets on three CDs was released by FoghornClassics in March 2004; the set is also bundled with a set of lectures by Robert Greenberg for The Teaching Company.

Among the quartet’s recent premieres are “Rise Chanting” by Augusta Read Thomas, commissioned for the group by the Krannert Center and premiered there and simulcast by WFMT radio in Chicago. The quartet has also premiered String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 by Pulitzer Prize winner Wayne Peterson and works by Ross Bauer (commissioned by Stanford University), Richard Festinger, David Sheinfeld, Hi Kyung Kim, and a Koussevitzky commission by Robert Greenberg. Forthcoming premieres include another Koussevitzky commission from David Olan.

At home in San Francisco, the members of Alexander String Quartet are a major artistic presence, serving as Ensemble in Residence of San Francisco Performances and as directors of the Morrison Chamber Music Center at the School of Music and Dance in the College of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University.

Alexander String Quartet was formed in New York City in 1981 and the following year became the first string quartet to win the Concert Artists Guild Competition. In 1985, the quartet captured international attention as the first and only American quartet to win the London International String Quartet Competition, receiving both the jury’s highest award and the Audience Prize. In May 1995, Allegheny College awarded Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degrees to the members of the quartet in recognition of their unique contribution to the arts. Honorary degrees were conferred on the ensemble by St. Lawrence University in May 2000.

The nationally recognized Performance Series at Lafayette attracts more than 10,000 people each season. It has been cited for performing excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Chamber Music America, Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, Pennsylvania Arts and Humanities Councils, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

The 2004-05 Performance Series at Lafayette is supported in part by gifts from Friends of the Williams Center for the Arts; by the F.M. Kirby Foundation; by provisions of the Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence Program, J. Mahlon and Grace Buck Foundation, and Croasdale Fund; and by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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