String Theory

by Jesse Hamlin

SF State's world-renowned Alexander String Quartet strikes a chord with students.

 Revenge of the Fallen."

Photo of the Alexander String Quartet members, from left:Zakarias Grafilo, Paul Yarbrough, Sandy Wilson, Frederick Lifsitz.

"It's not legato and it's not staccato," says Sandy Wilson, the cellist of the renowned Alexander String Quartet, coaching a group of SF State music students through the expansive opening theme of Schumann's Piano Quintet.

"I'm looking for something a bit like this," says the bearded British-born musician, taking the cello from his student Daniel Strickland and demonstrating the incisive articulation he is after. "It should be a little bit more effortful," Wilson adds, singing the triumphal line.

The musicians nod, then plunge into the piece with greater vigor. It is their first meeting of the fall semester, and their first time playing together. Over the next few months, they will learn to breathe together under the tutelage of master chamber musicians like Wilson and his colleagues in the Alexander String Quartet, which is celebrating 20 fruitful years as the quartet-in-residence at SF State. They've enriched the cultural life of the University and the Bay Area with their passionate dedication to performing and teaching. Some college presidents brag about their sports team. SF State's Robert A. Corrigan rightfully boasts that his school has one of the world's great string quartets-in-residence.

Known for the fire, grace and interpretive depth of their playing, the Alexanders, as they're called, play the music of Beethoven and Bartok, Ravel, Terry Riley (B.A., '57), Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor Emeritus Wayne Peterson and jazz composer Eddie Sauter with equal aplomb. Wilson, first violinist Zakarias Grafi lo (B.A., '00), second violinist Fred Lifsitz and violist Paul Yarbrough -- who co-founded the quartet with Wilson in New York in 1981 -- bring a wealth of knowledge and experience to the mentoring of young artists. They balance intellectual rigor and discipline with a down-to-earth, inclusive attitude that's perfectly suited to SF State's diverse community.

"A little less Glenn Gould," Wilson slyly advises pianist Vutu Nguyen, who is working over a solo passage in the Schumann.

"That's Stevie Wonder, man!" Nguyen replies, cracking everyone up. A few moments earlier, Wilson gingerly stepped on violinist Heidi Yoo's toe to remind her to stop tapping, a pet peeve of his.

"It's a manifestation of something that should be internal," says Wilson, who urges the musicians to watch each other and stay attuned to what's happening ensemble-wise. Yoo says he pressed her foot quite gently. "I can put a bit more weight on it than that," Wilson says with a smile. "This is just the first day."

The Alexanders' international reputation and welcoming manner have made SF State a magnet for musicians who aspire to play professionally and students from other fi elds who love to play. "They're great musicians and great teachers," says Strickland, who admits to being a bit terrifi ed playing parts that Wilson knows so well. "Their personalities compliment each other."

Some college presidents brag about their sports team. SF State's Robert A. Corrigan rightfully boasts that his school has one of the world's great string quartets-in-residence.

Their respect and affection for each other comes across in the music department's string quartet room, where the Alexanders rehearse every weekday morning when they're not touring nationally or around the world. They are fi ne-tuning parts of Beethoven's Quartet Opus 18, No. 1, which they will play this evening in the graduate seminar on the history of chamber music that they teach. They lean into the music, swaying and bobbing as the music fl oats and dances. In addition to performing concerts at SF State, and around the Bay Area under the auspices of San Francisco Performances -- where it's also the resident string quartet -- the group loves to participate in interdisciplinary programs on campus. They bring a live musical perspective to the study of humanities and sciences. During the fall semester, they visited the modern European history class taught by Assistant Professor Ben Martin, who was focusing on the period between the world wars. The Alexanders played the music of Shostakovich and talked about the great Russian composer and his confrontational relationship with Stalin and the dictator's brutally repressive regime.

"What's so cool is, that here we are on this campus, going out to play for people who probably haven't encountered this music before,'' says Yarbrough, who calls performing and teaching "two sides of the same coin. The way I was taught by my teachers was so inclusive, it was not just, 'Do this,' it was 'Join me, and we'll play chamber music together.' We try to keep that spirit here. It reminds us of the sense of wonder we felt when we were first exposed to fabulous music."

For Lifsitz, who joined the quartet in 1987, teaching keeps him fresh as an artist, "because you remind yourself of what you're doing and why. A fortunate teacher learns as much from a student as the student learns from him. It's a great way to keep growing."

Grafilo, a former concertmaster with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra who both earned a liberal studies degree and played in string quartets at SF State, was working with the Pacifi c Symphony in Orange County when the Alexanders tapped him to replace departing first violinist Gefang Yang.

"For a string player, it was a dream job," says Grafi lo, who joined the quartet in 2002 and began teaching at SF State, where the quartet directs the Morrison Chamber Music Center.

"Teaching forces you to practice what you preach," says the goateed Grafi lo, who this afternoon gave a private lesson to graduate student Quelani Penland, working on tempo, phrasing and bowing in preparation for her audition with the Marin Symphony.

"We often give master classes where we talk to students about the mechanics of playing in a string quartet or piano trio, and then we'll perform for them. And then we're on the spot, because we've been talking to them for hours about using less bow or watching each other and breathing together, and we have to do the same thing."

Working at SF State, Wilson adds, keeps them honest. "It reminds us that our optimal audience is not necessarily a 70-year-old transplanted European with blue hair. We need to think of who our audiences are going to be. We've all got kids and we love all kinds of music. It's a great advantage to really stay grounded in an environment that maintains the diversity that exists in the place where we live and work. I think it's very good for us."

The next afternoon in Knuth Hall, the Alexander String Quartet -- which took its name from the cellist's seldom-used first name -- led a chamber music forum featuring a performance by the brilliant young Hausmann Quartet, which won this year's Morrison Fellowship Award competition. They'll be working with the Alexanders and coaching student ensembles. They played the first movement of the Mendelssohn Quartet, Opus 80.

"I'd like to get a little bit more sense of the grief that Mendelssohn's dealing with here," Lifsitz tells the group, a direction which brings out the angst the next time through. Afterward, the Hausmann's second violinist, Bram Goldstein, praises the men who have made SF State a hothouse for chamber music.

"They're such down-to-earth musicians, soulful guys. And when they play, you feel the same thing," Goldstein says. "We meshed right away. We can learn so much from them."

So can amateur musicians like Alvin Rivera, a cello-playing history major.

"Just being in the presence of a world-class quartet, you feel that desire to push forward," he says. "They're an amazing inspiration."


The Alexander String Quartet celebrates 20 years as quartet-in-residence at SF State with a free concert including works by faculty and alumni, Dec.13, 3 p.m., Creative Arts building, McKenna Theatre. For more information or to listen to the quartet online, visit


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