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Ames Piano Quartet

Published onJul 30, 2021
Ames Piano Quartet

(1976 – 2012)

Quick Facts

The Ames Piano Quartet was an ensemble of Iowa State University faculty members that eventually reached the national stage during the group’s 36-year run under this name.


The Ames Piano Quartet was Iowa State University’s chamber ensemble in residence between its founding in 1976 and the retirement in 2012 of its two principal founding members. Beginning in 2012 the ensemble began a new stage in its career, now renamed the Amara Piano Quartet. From its inception as a faculty ensemble created to perform locally and to serve as a student recruiting tool, the quartet rose to international acclaim through its concerts across the United States and around the globe and its fourteen recordings on the Musical Heritage, Dorian, Albany, and Sono Luminus labels.

Even in its earliest years the Department of Music was home to a succession of faculty chamber ensembles, of which the Amati Trio—consisting of violinist Ilza Niemack, cellist Frantisek Smetana, and pianist Eugene Pridonoff—was perhaps the most noteworthy. When pianist William David was invited to join the faculty from graduate school at the University of Michigan in 1976, it was with the intention that he help rejuvenate this Trio, which had lapsed into inactivity. Four years later, when violinist Mahlon Darlington joined the ISU faculty, coming from Grinnell College as a member of the Manhattan String Quartet, conversations began about creating a faculty piano quartet on campus to replace the previous Amati Trio. Laurence Burkhalter, then department chair and violist, William David, Mahlon Darlington and cellist David Tabbat were convinced that there were already many piano trios vying for headlines, but few piano quartets. If the trio added the viola, to create a quartet, they might create a niche market for themselves. The newly constituted Iowa State Piano Quartet began rehearsals in 1976 and shortly thereafter, in order to avoid confusion with potential students over distinctions between Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, renamed itself the Ames Piano Quartet, leaving no doubt as to its location.

David Tabbat remained with the ensemble only until 1979, when he was replaced by Haden McKay, who remained until 1981. As the quartet began to gain repertoire and wanted more exposure, they applied for membership on the roster of Allied Concerts, based in Wayzata, Minnesota, and were accepted in 1981, gaining performances via that agency throughout an eight-state region of the Midwest. Following shortly thereafter, also in 1981, McKay was replaced by George Work, who was recruited from the Eastman School of Music, and who has remained with the quartet ever since.

The jump to national artist representation occurred in 1985, when the Ames Quartet solicited Joanne Rile Artist Management in Philadelphia, was accepted, and began performing concerts across America in 1986. Joanne Rile arranged a New York debut at Merkin recital hall in 1987, which was well received by the audience and critics alike, and that was followed in 1988 by two international tours: to Paris and Marseilles, France, and to Merida, Mexico.

The year 1989 began a six-year fertile period for the quartet with the almost annual release of recordings featuring the masterpieces for piano quartet from Romantic musical literature. In 1989, a recording of piano quartets by Chausson and Saint-Saëns was issued on the Musical Heritage label. 1990 saw the release on the Dorian label of both Dvorak quartets, followed in 1991 by both Fauré quartets. The Ames recorded piano quartets by Widor and Richard Strauss in 1993, and all three Brahms piano quartets and one by Robert Schumann in 1994 and 1995. All these recordings appeared on the Dorian label, establishing a continuing relationship between the artists and the recording company.

During this time the Ames Piano Quartet continued its annual American tours, visiting cities across the country, but especially Los Angeles (1989 and 1991), and Washington, D.C. (1988 and 1996). Extending its busy national schedule were several important performances abroad, most notably in Quebec City and Taiwan (1991), Salzburg, Austria (1994), Toronto (1992 and 1994), and Vancouver (1995). Additionally, WQXR radio in New York featured the quartet live on its show The Listening Room in 1987, and on Music at First Hearing in 1993.

The first large change in personnel in over fifteen years occurred in 1998 when Laurence Burkhalter retired from the group and was replaced by Jonathan Sturm, who came to the quartet from a position as concertmaster of the Des Moines Symphony and Associate Professor of violin and viola at Drake University. The Ames Quartet took the opportunity created by new personnel to revisit its interpretations of the standard piano quartet repertoire and also to expand its emphasis once again toward new pieces and commissions.

A collaboration with local concert presenter Ames Town and Gown, enabled the quartet to commission a new quartet entitled Dark Rosaleen from esteemed American composer Lee Hoiby, which they premiered in 2000, celebrating Ames Town and Gown’s 50th anniversary, and cementing a mutual relationship between presenter and quartet. At about the same time, in 1999, the nationally syndicated radio show St. Paul Sunday produced a broadcast live from Iowa State University that featured the Ames Piano Quartet, which was so successful that its host, Bill McGlaughlin, invited them to a second broadcast from St. Paul the following year. The year 2000 also saw the quartet reconnect with the Dorian label and release its first compact disc with violist Jonathan Sturm, a pairing of quartets by Alexander Taneyev and Paul Juon, creating a Russian-themed disc.

The idea of presenting piano quartets by several composers of one nationality proved auspicious, and formed the central idea of the quartet’s recordings in the 21st century. Although the quartet, of necessity, suspended its relationship with Dorian during the label’s bankruptcy lawsuit in the first half of the decade, it partnered with the Albany label to record a compact disc of quartets by American composers (William Bolcom, Richard Willis, and Lee Hoiby) in 2005. By 2006, Dorian had emerged from its legal battles and was purchased by the Sono Luminus label, which promptly issued a “Czech” CD that had been “on hold” and that featured music by Josef Suk, Viteslav Novak and Bohuslav Martinu. A 2-CD set of British piano quartets (by William Walton, Herbert Howells, Arthur MacKenzie, Charles Villiers Stanford, Gordon Jacob and Frank Bridge) appeared on the Albany label in 2007, followed by a “Spanish” CD entitled La Muerte del Angel in 2008, featuring quartets by Joaquín Turina, Carlos Surinach and Alexandre Tansman, with an eponymous encore by Piazzolla.

The Ames Quartet re-established its relationship with the Dorian/Sono Luminus label when it released in 2010 a 9-CD retrospective set of the complete Dorian recordings by the Ames Piano Quartet. Sono Luminus then produced a new disc featuring music of the Classic era by Mozart, Beethoven and Hummel (2011), and a Post-Romantic French CD featuring quartets by Reynaldo Hahn, Theodore Dubois, and Florent Schmitt (also in 2011).

While maintaining this continuous recording schedule, the Ames Quartet also nurtured its national and international concertizing. One of its most notable tours occurred in 2003 when it traveled to Cuba as the first American chamber ensemble to be invited to perform there since the country’s communist revolution in 1959. 2006 brought performances in Cape Town, South Africa, and 2010 took the group to Kaliningrad, Russia, where the quartet performed chamber music concerts as well as joining the Kaliningrad Symphony for performances as soloists with the orchestra. Also during this time the nationally recognized summer chamber music camp at Madeline Island, Wisconsin asked the Ames to join its summer faculty, leading to a three-year collaboration from 2004 to 2006, and the nationally syndicated radio show Performance Today selected two of the quartet’s live performances (in 2008 and 2009) for broadcast as a part of its selective programming.

In 2009, the Colours of Music festival in Barrie, Ontario extended an invitation to the quartet to perform on its festival roster, which proved so successful that the offer was renewed in 2011, and again in 2013 (this time with the newly constituted Amara Quartet).

The second personnel change in over 30 years occurred in 2012 as founding members William David and Mahlon Darlington retired from the group. Following an international search, violinist Borivoj Martinic-Jercic was brought in from a position as concertmaster of I Solisti di Zagreb in Croatia, and pianist Mei-Hsuan Huang was hired from a position in the Fulbright Trio at the University of Arkansas. Such a substantial change in the ensemble created an ideal opportunity to consider rebranding the established quartet with an eye to aligning its national image more consistently with the marketing and concertizing demands of the 21st century.

With new personnel and a new name, the Amara Piano Quartet gave its debut performance on November 11, 2012. The chapter for this new ensemble has yet to be written although its beginnings are once again auspicious with a new exclusive recording contract with the Fleur de Son label, and concerts in Canada, Virginia, and Ohio during the 2013-14 season. The original Ames Piano Quartet, however, left a clear and important mark on chamber music in America throughout the nearly 35 years spanning 1976 to 2012. Reviews of its concerts and recordings included statements such as:

“The Ames Quartet has a full vigorous sound, which deeply touches the soul,” (La Côte des Arts, France); “Dorian produced one of the best chamber recordings of the century (and I am stating this conservatively) in its Dvorak piano quartets CD featuring the Ames Piano Quartet; a recording this good defeats one’s critical faculties.” (Fanfare) “The Ames Piano Quartet performs every work with amazing strength and total dedication.” (

Reviews like these, combined with the Ames Quartet’s biannual performances on the campus of Iowa State University, and its longstanding willingness to be an ambassador to the community of Ames and Central Iowa have made the quartet a favorite among local audiences and established its name as one of the legacies of excellence at Iowa State University.

Selected Sources

Ames Piano Quartet, Artist Biography by Robert Cummings on All Music.

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