Most string quartets make their way through the same life passages that visit the human condition.
The venerable Tokyo String Quartet is on its final life passage. After nearly 45 years on the chamber music scene, the ensemble is calling it quits at the end of its current tour.
The quartet performs Friday in Sacramento as the last concert in the New Millennium Series at California State University, Sacramento. The program is Haydn's Quartet in G major, Op. 77, No. 1, "Lobkowitz"; Bartok's Quartet No. 5; and Ravel's Quartet in F major.
Two months after the Sacramento concert, the group will make its final performance in fitting fashion at the Norfolk (Conn.) Chamber Music Festival, the summer home of the Yale School of Music, where since 1976 the quartet has been on the faculty as artists in residence.
"I'm trying to imagine what it will be like just to prepare for that," said violinist Martin Beaver via phone from his home in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
"I'm not sure there will be any way to do that," he said.
The quartet was formed at Juilliard in 1969 by four students from Japan. One original member remains: violist Kazuhide Isomura. Violinist Kikuei Ikeda joined in 1974, cellist Clive Greensmith in 1999 and Beaver in 2002.
Top-flight, full-time string quartets are a rarity in the classical world. Even more so is one with the deep name recognition of the Tokyo String Quartet.
The decision to disband the quartet stems from last year's decision by Isomura and Ikeda to leave the group. Beaver and Greensmith floated the idea of keeping the ensemble going. Auditions were conducted, and many fine musicians read for the two open spots, Beaver said.
However, the idea could not outmatch certain realities. "In many ways, it could have worked on a musical level," Beaver said. "But on a personal level we could not escape this nagging feeling that, somehow, it was probably just the right moment for the quartet to go quietly, and while we're still at our peak."
He said it would have been difficult to sell the idea of a Tokyo String Quartet given that none of its members had any direct connection with Tokyo, or even Japan.
There was also another challenge.
"I don't know of any quartets that have ever replaced two members at one time," said Andrew Luchansky, director of the New Millennium Series and longtime cello professor at CSUS.
Typically, one member is replaced, and that profoundly changes the ensemble's sound. This was seen when the Juilliard String Quartet added Joseph Linn as first violinist two years ago. That ensemble, in existence since 1946, was forced to evolve again this year with the addition of violinist Roger Tapping.
With 40-plus recordings, the Tokyo String Quartet leaves behind an enviable legacy.
"What they're known for, originally, was for having the cleanest of clean intonations," Luchansky said. "It was just absolutely polished."
He likes to contrast the Tokyo's spotless sound with the grit that was a characteristic of its contemporary quartet.
"Early on in their history the two up-and-coming quartets were the Tokyo and the Cleveland quartets," Luchansky said. "They were complete opposites. The Cleveland were blood and guts all over the place, and it wasn't always perfect. But the Tokyo, they were more refined."
The Cleveland quartet disbanded in 1995. Meanwhile, the Tokyo Quartet evolved with the consensus that the new members gave it a richer sound.
"Since getting the two newest members, they're better than ever because they now have it all," Luchansky said. "It seems they have taken their foot off the gas on absolute perfection."
Beaver said he and Greensmith share one perspective.
"One of the great or most important philosophies of the quartet over the years is that we really do try to serve what we see as the composer's true intentions.
"Playing the notes and being impressive? That's not enough. You have to dig deep into the music," he said. "We want to make sure that future generations realize the importance of this."
Those future generations are most likely to be found not where the quartet has been based, but in Los Angeles, where Beaver and Greensmith will head the string chamber program at the Colburn School.
Teaching will open a new chapter for Beaver, 45 one rooted in home life with his wife and two young daughters and less time in airports and hotels.
Through most of its life, the Tokyo String Quartet had an intense and enviable touring schedule, with more than 100 concerts yearly.
"I'll probably miss the frequency of travel, as I enjoy it and like visiting new places," Beaver said. "But after 11 years of touring, it might be a nice time to curtail that activity a little."
TOKYO STRING QUARTET
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Music Recital Hall, California State University, Sacramento
Information: (916) 278-5191; www.csus.edu/music
Call The Bee's Edward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..