Interviewing the Jerusalem Quartet is almost impossible. It has taken many months and a series of increasingly frantic emails to track down the ensemble's first violinist, Alexander "Sasha" Pavlovsky, at his home in Jerusalem. The elusiveness has nothing to do with an aversion to the media. Rather as one of the world's leading and most presentable young quartets, the four members are so phenomenally busy. With a heavy touring schedule, they never appear to be in one place for any length of time, and rarely long enough to commit to interviews. So getting one of them on the phone is a bit of an achievement.
Since its formation in 1993, the quartet has become a real force on the concert circuit, giving approximately 60-70 performances a year and winning a multitude of awards along the way. Next stop is a performance of works by Brahms and Schumann at the Cheltenham Festival.
"We try to keep a good balance with our concerts, not too few, and not too many," says Pavlovsky. "It probably equates to a solo artist giving 30 concerts a year. Anything more, and it then becomes very stressful. We didn't want it to be more business than pleasure. And three of us do have families to look after," he laughs.
The Quartet fills in those gaps between tours by performing in Israel ("it's very important for us to play in our adopted country", says Pavlovsky) and devoting time to their individual teaching commitments.
Kiev-born Pavlovsky is a faculty member at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and artistic director of the Zeist Chamber Music Festival in the Netherlands; the Quartet's Minsk-born cellist, Kyril Zlotnikov, has been principal cellist and a teacher with the Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra under Daniel Barenboim since 2003; Ukranian-born violinist Sergei Bresler gives masterclasses worldwide.
The fourth member is American-born, Israeli-raised violist Ori Kamp who doubles as violin professor at the Geneva Conservatory. Kam recently replaced Amihai Grosz, who left to join the Berlin Philharmonic. All four original members met as students of the famous Jerusalem Music Centre (Israel's hot-house for emerging talent), having been thrown together by dint of the level of their musical ability. So has the change in line-up been difficult for the group?
"Of course it's strange when a member leaves," says Pavlovsky. "It's just like a real family. And especially when the rest of us had been playing together for almost 15 years. But with Ori, we had already taken him on two tours with us and knew him before then anyway. He was also our guest five years ago when we played at the Wigmore Hall. We found that he was very professional and had lots of good ideas. Sometimes, when you've been playing with the same people for so many years, you get used to things that maybe are not always that perfect. Ori would say immediately: 'Why do you do this?' It makes for interesting discussions on what to do musically."
The Wigmore Hall was where it all really started for the Quartet. Playing there as part of the famous Amadeus String Quartet's summer course in 1999, it was immediately invited back for its own evening concert by the venue's then director, William Lyne. "The Wigmore is like our second home," says Pavlovsky. "A much-loved place for us when we come to the UK and probably the only place we play so many concerts in one season."
The Wigmore Hall was also the venue where, last year, its concert, broadcast live on Radio 3, was interrupted 10 minutes into the performance by pro-Palestinian protestors who targeted the Quartet as supporters of the Israeli government. At the time, the Quartet issued a statement stating that "we no more represent the government of Israel than the audience at the Wigmore Hall represented the government of the United Kingdom". Pavlovsky refuses to be drawn on the incident now, saying that he does not want to give publicity to the anti-Israeli lobby by talking about it.
He is much keener to discuss the ensemble's repertoire. "One life is not enough to play even a little part of it, as the body of music for quartets is so large. Mostly we play what we want, or at least what we feel comfortable with. And that, for us, is everything, from early Haydn through to some contemporary music. Quartets pieces are like the culmination of each composer's work, so the choice is so varied and rich. I really don't know of any bad music written for the medium."