The harbinger of the Wister Quartet was a lively group of Philadelphia music students who wanted to play for fun. After meeting regularly at night at 1807 Sansom Street to read through music, they decided to call themselves 1807 & Friends. In 1981, after garnering a small but growing following, they gave their first official public concert under that name.
The Wister Quartet was born of that group. In 1987, Nancy Bean, first violin, Davyd Booth, second violin and piano; Pamela Fay, viola; and Lloyd Smith, cello, created the quartet and named the group for Frances Anne Wister, founder of the volunteer committees of the Philadelphia Orchestra. That three of the members were in the orchestra playing a full year-round schedule and the fourth was a busy freelance musician did not slow them down at all. For all four, the experience of chamber music is the ultimate, intimate musical experience that, as Smith said in a WHYY television interview, “is what I live to do.”
Bringing in the big dogs
The Wister Quartet began to perform more and more frequently in the Philadelphia area and was featured in the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chamber Music series. Shortly after Wolfgang Sawallisch took the helm of the orchestra, Bean recalls steeling her nerves to ask him if he would play with the quartet. She was relieved when he agreed to play the Brahms Piano Quintet in F minor, Opus 34. Bean says Maestro Sawallisch was such a good pianist that when he played the Scherzo of the Brahms quintet, “it took the top of your head off.” Needless to say, the maestro was just as inspired by the quartet. And, for the record, he donated his fee back to the organizers, the German Society of Pennsylvania.
The list of guest artists with whom the Wister Quartet has played includes some local favorites, such as Marcantonio Barone, a regular with 1807 & Friends, Carol Jantsch, who played the Alban Carnival of Venice arranged for tuba, and Allen Krantz, who composed A Small Symphony for String Quartet and Electric Guitar, Opus 31a for the group. They have played with Yo-yo Ma, Yefim Bronfman, Alicia de Larrocha, Christoph Eschenbach and Emanuel Ax. The quartet continues to organize concerts with 1807 & Friends to which they invite guest performers and composers.
More than just pretty music
Each member of the Wister Quartet spends a great deal of time promoting music education and performance. Fay is on the Interlochen Chamber Music Camp faculty, and Booth is on the faculty of the Temple University Preparatory Department, where he conducts two student orchestras. Bean and Smith have both retired from the Philadelphia Orchestra and are able to devote themselves to ambitious projects. For example, Mr. Smith has taught composition at the MMI Preparatory School for many years and has the quartet perform with his students in what is now a full-fledged annual celebration concert.
The Wister Quartet has performed in Europe and Asia and participates in the Lenape Chamber Players’s Summer Festival and in the Saratoga Performing Arts Center chamber series. They have recorded for Direct-to-Tape Records and their first recording earned them a Grammy nomination.
This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the Wister Quartet’s chamber series at the German Society of Pennsylvania, Wister & More! — a series established in their honor which now hosts 10 annual concerts. When the series was inaugurated in 1991, Sunday afternoon concerts were rare and people flocked to hear the quartet play with Wolfgang Sawallisch and Christoph Eschenbach.
They have come a long way from their days as students just reading for fun, but somehow, no matter how many years go by, they still seem to enjoy making music.