Boots Randolph to Beethoven

By Lawrence Cosentino

How the Tokyo String Quartet paid its dues

Few connoisseurs have studied the Tokyo String Quartet’s Nashville period, but that’s forgivable. It went by pretty fast.

In summer 1969, violist Kazuhide Isomura and original Tokyo String Quartet cellist Sadao Harada moonlighted as Nashville session musicians. Harada appeared on the Johnny Cash TV show a few times, and Isomura played with Chet Atkins.

“Country music was booming,” Isomura said. “I even did a session with Boots Randolph.”

Randolph, whose music sounds like cornstarch hardening on overalls, is most famous for a ditty called “Yakety Sax.”

This year, one of the world’s great chamber ensembles is riding high, with a spurt of critically acclaimed, best-selling recordings and a globe-spanning tour that will bring them to the Wharton Center Friday.

The Nashville detour seems odd now, but it helped start them on their way. Back in Tokyo, Isomura and the other original members dreamed of going to New York’s Juilliard School and putting together a string quartet. Isomura and Harada were already principal players in the Nashville Symphony, but to finance the dream, they needed more money.

One day, Harada got excited when a promoter told him he was hired to accompany Elvis Presley. “Unfortunately, Elvis was living in Memphis, not Nashville,” Isomura said. “They did it with overdubbing.”

But enough country-style heartbreak. Within a year, the quartet formed officially at Juilliard and quickly Isomura joined its first role models, the Juilliard Quartet, in the first rank of world chamber ensembles.

Gorgeous, full, deep-breathing tone is a Tokyo Quartet hallmark. (Check out a guerilla YouTube video of the group at Wolfe Recital Hall and you’ll hear a lady in the audience whisper to her companion: “I can feel it vibrate in my chest.”)

In a wonderful and weird arrangement, the group plays a sub-quartet of instruments that always stays together and even has its own name: The Paganini Quartet, on loan to the Tokyo Quartet from its owner, the Nippon Foundation, since 1994.

Or does the Paganini Quartet play them?

“We are very lucky to play these instruments,” Isomura said. “Paganini collected them.”

Paganini, the most terrifyingly skillful violinist in history, switched over to viola on occasion, favoring the instrument Isomura plays now. “All four are really beautiful and made by Stradivarius, but each one is quite different in its period and character,” Isomura said. The newest axe of the four, Clive Greensmith’s cello, dates from 1736.

Meanwhile, back in 2009, The Tokyo Quartet is in top form, touring behind complete cycles of Beethoven and Bartok string quartets, the summits of the literature. (Friday’s recital at Wharton includes Beethoven, Bartok and Mendelssohn.) Over the years, Isomura and his colleagues have reaped every conceivable music award, but he’s especially tickled to find the group’s new Beethoven disc in Billboard’s classical Top 20.

“We are up there with the big symphonies and flashy young girl soloists,” Isomura said. “A Beethoven record played by middle-aged to old men — it’s really encouraging.

Tokyo String Quartet

8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 13 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $15-$28 1 (800) WHARTON