Gyros String Quartet - Dallas/Ft.Worth's premiere  wedding string quartet

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Gyros String Quartet


Gyros Quartet

Jon Lagow
the singing
string quartet

Photographs and text by Jon Lagow 

On Sundays at the Dream Cafe, the full tables and chattering patrons are not the only thing spilling out the front door. From seven till ten, the Gyros String Quartet, accompanied by a variable soloist, blows the minds of unsuspecting diners and gives the Sunday night regulars what they would be hard-pressed to find in any other city.

The Quartet approached its performances with little or no preconceptions of what they should be. According to Norbert Gerl, one of the founding members, it's this unusual approach that allows them to function more like a small symphony than a quartet. Each Sunday, in addition to the four string players, there is a guest soloist. A guitar, oboe, French horn, flute, or just about any other type of instrument can be found accompanying the players. There is no shortage of talented, available musicians who are ready to fill the slot for a night. It seems as if these people are possessed by their instincts, often playing with more intensity than any speed metal band. Audiences often seem a bit baffled but are rarely unmoved.

The Quartet came about three and a half years ago. Their first steady gig was at the now-defunct Pantelli's. The restaurant originally hired Cafe Noir, the band which Norbert Gerl and Gale Hess had started in London and inadvertently moved to Dallas. Given a free hand by the management to experiment with different types of music, the quartet was born. After Pantelli's closing, it was a year before another steady gig came along. Once again it was Cafe Noir that opened the door for the foursome. The Dream Cafe had moved from its old location on Knox to the present one in the Quadrangle when it contacted Cafe Noir about playing. It was apparent to the band members that the Quartet would be more suited to the atmosphere of the cafe. And, once again, the management was willing to give the performers free reign.

This is by no means the only gig for the four regular players. Mitch Maxwell is the Principal Cellist of the Dallas Opera, Sasha Shtarkman is the Associate Principal Second violinist of the Dallas Symphony. Gale Hess and Norbert Gerl, in addition to the quartet, play with Cafe Noir and for an assorted array of freelance jobs, ranging from theater to private parties.

The quartet is a truly innovative group --- a Sunday night performance that should not be missed.


Feb 2, 1995

Dazed and bemused

By Robert Wilonsky 

When Jimmy Page and Robert Plant bring their "UnLEDed Tour" to Reunion Arena March 18, they will share the stage with an Egyptian orchestra and a 20-piece string section featuring only Dallas-area musicians. Cafe Noir's Norbert Gerl has been hired to contract the musicians, who will be given a two-hour rehearsal before the concert and then have to rely on charts. Cafe Noir's Gale Hess will play principal viola...In other Cafe Noir news, the band plans to release its third album, the heartbreakingly lovely The Waltz King, near the end of the month. 


Gyros String Quartet

June 7, 1990


By Rosalyn Story

It's Sunday evening at The Dream Cafe on Routh Street, and amid the din of dishes clattering and voices in muted conversation, a more tonal sound erupts. Patrons look up from their vegetarian enchiladas or miso tahini concoctions to discover the real treat of the evening. As s string quartet launches into the spirited opening of the Divertimento in D, the bustling mood alters, the focus shifts from miso to Mozart, and a musical balm settles over the cafe.

String quartets performing dinner-hour duty in restaurants is nothing new, but usually the practice is reserved for three- and four-star retreats with linen tablecloths, French-speaking sommeliers, and cummerbunded waiters, hardly the scene at the unpretentious Dream Cafe. And the Gyros Quartet is a far cry from the usual sober-faced, tuxedoed ensembles of these Eurostyled dining venues. Casual in dress and mood, the four musicians choose the evening's musical menu, not according to a rehearsed program, but to the collective mood of the players. And selection is critical, since all pieces are sight-read---that is, read without preparation or rehearsal.

There is no greater risk in music performance than sight-reading with your audience at arm's reach. But the players insist the risk of the unknown adds a tightrope intensity that creates excitement, enhances spontaneity,  and increases their performance nerve and ability.

"What's also important here is that people who come into this restaurant don't get a chance to see what goes on behind the scenes in a quartet," says cellist Mitch Maxwell, a native Texan who studied with renowned pedagogue Lev Aaronson and plays with the Dallas Opera Orchestra. "We are like four kamikaze pilots, going after the music, when it's brand-new to us. We are rediscovering the music at the moment, and the people pick up on it and share in the excitement and the discovery, in much the way that musicians do."

While these Sunday evening performances are usually seasoned with lighthearted banter, the Gyros players dive into the classical repertory with the confidence of seasoned veterans, and the enthusiasm of jazz players priming for an all-night jam. And despite the no-rehearsal policy, the quality is remarkably high, and directly related to the players' personal involvement with the music. Smiles cross their faces at the discovery of a beautifully constructed suspended chord or a flawlessly played 16th-note run.

The odd missed note is no casualty---for these players, technical accuracy takes a back seat to musicality, a bigger priority to the performers as well as to their audience. "The audience is not necessarily made up of fantastic music lovers who know all the pieces," says violist Norbert Gerl, a native of Augsburg, Germany, who also plays rhythm guitar in Dallas-based jazz ensemble Cafe Noir. "They relate to the music in the sense of, 'Does it move me?' And they only applaud if the performance is musical, rather than if we are playing all the right notes at the right time.

As with most restaurants, the noise level at The Dream Cafe will rise and fall, depending on the number of patrons and their interest in the performance, which is also given to a certain ebb and flow. The slightest affecting nuance or deftly turned phrase will hush a packed house, and slow movements of Haydn or Dvorak are usually guaranteed to subdue the most vociferous crowd. "There's no convention here," says Gerl. "In a concert hall, people are going to be quiet anyway, because they have to be. You can tell they really like it, because they are only going to listen when things are happening. It's an exciting challenge."

The Gyros Quartet has done more than embellish the ambiance of one of Dallas' busiest cafes. It has, through its classical Sunday evenings, helped to demystify the worlds of chamber music and classical performance by closing the gap between audience and performer, both physically and spiritually. The usual concert hall demarcation line between stage and audience is erased, as cafe customers are never discouraged from peering over the shoulders of the players as they perform, or calling out requests.

"It's not often that they get a chance to have classical music in an atmosphere that's not threatening," says second violinist Gale Hess, a Dallas native who is equally at home with a Mozart countermelody or the jazz riffs she executes as violinist with Cafe Noir.  "It's great when parents bring their kids in, because they can hear musicians in a relaxed atmosphere, and they don't get intimidated by a concert situation. They hear good musicians having fun with good music."

For Hess, Maxwell and Gerl, the Gyros Quartet is one of many free-lance jobs that contribute substantially to their monthly incomes, but not so for first violinist Alexandra Shtarkman, who makes her living as the Dallas Symphony's associate principal second violinist. Even though the rewards of a DSO musician are many and varied, the challenges are unique as first violinist with Gyros. The brunt of leadership and interpretive direction falls squarely on the shoulders of the Kiev-born violinist, and the greatest compensation she can hope for is the approving smile of her quartet colleagues. "These people let me know, silently, when it's making sense musically, and when it's just going through the motions," Shtarkman says of her fellow musicians. "I don't find in many places that people are hard on you for not being musical, except here. For them it has to be convincing, it has to be alive."

"There's nothing worse than thrown-together chamber music," she adds. "And it would seem that this is thrown together, but it's not. The expectations of this group are, 'Okay, convince me. Make something out of this piece.' "

The quartet agrees that it is easier to maintain a high level of performance quality when sticking to the baroque and classical repertory---Mozart, Haydn, and early Beethoven works are preferred over late Beethoven and romantic works that are more harmonically complex and difficult without rehearsal. Maxwell recalls a moment when, in a fit of derring-do, the quartet attempted to read publicly a later Beethoven work.
"We did the Beethoven Quartet, Op.59, No.1," he says. "By the time we got to the double bar [half way through the first movement], we were all wet with perspiration and had this wild look in our eyes. Without a word, we all closed the music and put it back in the box."

The quartet recently celebrated its two-year anniversary at The Dream Cafe, but actually began playing three years ago at the now defunct Pantelli's restaurant on Lower Greenville. (Ft.Worth associate concertmaster Loren Laing was the group's original first violinist, followed by DSO violinist Lauren Charbonneau, who played with the group until Shtarkman replaced her in 1989.) When Pantelli's went belly-up two years ago, Gyros began searching for another performance home. The Dream Cafe, which had increased its space by moving from the Knox/Henderson area to The Quadrangle, seemed a likely location. Restaurant owners (and sister and brother tandem) Mary and Grady O'Brien say good music is good for business. And in Dallas's highly competitive restaurant market, an edge can only help.

"Having music is no guarantee that you are going to do well," says Mary, who started the restaurant about six years ago after a five-month stint in a three-star restaurant in Paris, France. "But I definitely think it enhances business. People talk about how serene it is, and what a nice way it is to end the week. The people who like it are fanatical about it."

And the owners say their menu, largely oriented toward whole food with a gourmet presentation, is stylistically compatible with the refined musical tastes of their clientele. "Our food is fresh and clean---mostly vegetarian," says Grady. "People who like classical music are overall pretty sophisticated, and like good food and eat well."

It's a combination that seems to work---digestible music and healthful food---as The Dream Cafe on Sunday nights is the hot ticket in Dallas dining. Crowds often spill out onto the ample portico, and reservations provide the only assurance of seating after seven. To add to this musical feast, some of the most talented musicians in town drop by to perform solo concertos backed by the ensemble, and the variety can stagger the imagination. Once a spoon-playing virtuoso stopped in to perform intricate rhythmic etudes on his own vast array of finely tuned tableware. But most of the featured soloists are traditional, and among audience favorites are guitarist Chris Carrington, DSO clarinetist Steve Girko, and DSO associate concertmaster Motoi Takeda.

As to how and why a Dallas Symphony title player would find time and energy to perform concertos on his evenings off, Takeda replies, "I often ask myself that question, but it's just for fun." Once the Tokyo-born, Juilliard-educated artist performed three Mozart violin concertos in one evening, a Herculean effort he waves off as "typical" of his rigorous  student days. And the availability of committed musicians appeals to him. "If you were to try to assemble four or five people together to read chamber music, it wouldn't be that easy. Here, the quartet is already in place. I can play with friends I like, there's no pressure, and all the players are talented musicians."

Talent is what has allowed Gyros to sustain the longest restaurant residency of its kind in town, and garner it a large following, as well as two Dallas Observer Music Award nominations. Most importantly, the group has taken classical music not only from the concert hall to the cafe, but also from the background to the foreground.

"There are a lot of other quartets that are viable music institutions, but as far as restaurant playing goes, we are not a background quartet," says Shtarkman. "We are a living, performing quartet, where people may show up playing anything from spoons to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. In this context, everything is interesting. And you don't show up in a black tie for one event and blue jeans for the other. The jeans will go just as well with the Mendelssohn."

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