The Brentano String Quartet, which returns Sunday to Union College’s International Festival of Chamber Music, has performed around the world since it was founded in 1992. But this year and next, the quartet is broadening into areas it has never been.
The film “A Late Quartet,” starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Christopher Walken, recently opened in movie theaters — locally it’s been playing at The Spectrum in Albany. The Brentano played the score of the film, which is Beethoven’s late quartet Op. 131.
“The director, Yaron Zilberman, had been to some of our concerts,” said violist Misha Amory.
Brentano String Quartet
WHERE: Union College Memorial Chapel, 807 Union St., Schenectady
WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday
HOW MUCH: $25, $10
MORE INFO: 388-6080, www.union.edu/concert-series
“About five years ago, he contacted me to talk about this project he had of doing a film centered on a string quartet and Beethoven.”
The idea was to show the conflicts and rewards of a string quartet who had played together for more than two decades — sort of like the Brentano — and what happens when the cellist (Walken) is diagnosed with a serious disease.
Once Zilberman got the funding in place, recordings were done of the Brentano rehearsing and playing the quartet’s seven movements. Later, the Brentano’s 2011 release was used (“Beethoven: The Late Quartets Op. 127 and 131,” Aeon).
“There’s no footage of us [in the film], only our sound,” Amory said.
However, the quartet’s cellist, Nina Lee, who joined founding members Amory and violinists Mark Steinberg and Serena Canin in 1998, is in the film. She plays herself as the cellist who replaces the Walken character.
“When we saw the screening we didn’t even recognize her. I said ‘That’s Nina?’ ” Amory said with a laugh. “They’d decked her out with this fancy hairstyle.”
During filming, the Brentano got used to hearing Lee practice her lines for the two short scenes that she was in. They also got to meet the actors, who were very courteous and super nice, Amory said. The Brentano also played the Beethoven for the actors at a special concert.
“It’s all been very much outside of our usual sphere,” Amory said.
In June they’ll tackle another new venue: the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. The Brentano will be the quartet that the 12 semifinalists will work with to show to the judges their chamber music skills. In the past, other quartets such as the Tokyo and the Takacs have served.
“We will have to do our best to find their comfort zones. The pressure will be enormous on them,” Amory said. “Some will have no experience playing with a string quartet and others will have more. We’re expecting a huge range.”
The Brentano will be a bit under the gun, too. They will offer a list of the quintets they will be ready to play but won’t know until the competition which will be chosen.
“We must have four big pieces ready to go — like the Brahms, Dvorák, Franck and the Schumann,” Amory said. “We’re very excited. This is quite different for us. They [the competition officials] contacted us more than a year ago to help them out. We’ll be needed for four days. It will be an intense scene.”
When the Brentano eventually gets back to doing their regular repertoire of quartets, it might seem a bit, well, ho-hum.
“Not really,” Amory said. “We’re already working two years in advance. We’re trying to be organized with our schedules and programs, rather than learn 10 new pieces in September.”
Their program on Sunday is representative of the kind of work they like to present. Haydn’s Quartet in E-flat Major (“Joke”) is a great piece from a favorite composer — they’ve recorded Haydn’s Op. 71 quartets (Aeon). Bartók’s Quartet No.4 is filled with the composer’s methodical ideas within contrapuntal games.
“It’s incredibly exuberant . . . lots of color,” Amory said.
Brahms’ Quartet in A minor is the only piece the Brentano has not performed this season.
“It’s autumnal but with a huge wild gypsy movement at the end,” he said.
The Brentano’s interest in very old and very new music is reflected in the choice of Purcell’s Fantasias. These are consorts for any string instrument and they work beautifully for four players.
“They’re surprisingly and painfully beautiful,” he said. ‘They have a completely different feel for a standard string quartet.”
The entire program is one of three that the Brentano offered this season from which series directors choose. Being able to provide this level of variety is all part of the job.
“We rehearse three hours a day from Monday through Friday,” Amory said. “Fortunately, we all live in New York City.”
This makes it easier to get to their other main commitment as being the first string quartet to be in residence at Princeton University, where their duties include a monthly performance, workshops with graduate composers, and coaching undergraduates in chamber music. Otherwise, the Brentano is on the road with about 60 concerts annually throughout North America and Europe.
“We’ve never been to China or Korea, and we’d love to go to India. We’ve never been to Africa, but we visited Israel for the first time last May and we went to Colombia two years ago,” Amory said. “Managements usually focus on their area of expertise, but we’d be open to other places.”
For now, the Brentano is looking at a new program for next year at the 92nd Street Y series, at which five new pieces have been written for them that involve other artists, including voice, another violist and a jazz pianist. That means they’ll be hanging around New York City more.
“We like spending time together. We were graduate students at Juilliard when we founded the quartet, and we try to be nice to each other,” Amory said. “It’s a huge part of what keeps us together.”