Cellist Tim Eddy remembers Orion String Quartet history ahead of the group’s final concert together.
By Nicky Swett
Danny and Todd Phillips grew up in a musically rich home in Pittsburgh. Their mother, Natalie, was a pianist and beloved teacher, with a constant stream of piano students coming through the house. Eugene, their father, was a violinist in the Pittsburgh Symphony, a composer, and an occasional sculptor and painter. He also had a small violin repair shop on an upper story of the home, where he would glue seams and fix chin rests. String quartets, especially the Budapest Quartet, constantly played on the phonograph. Eugene also had his own quartet, and when Danny was old enough he joined his father’s group as second violinist. Todd took over when his brother went off to college.
Cellist Tim Eddy explained to me that this was really where the Orion Quartet was born. Early on, the brothers “expressed to each other their desire to one day have a quartet together. That’s where it started. In that household and in that family with the two of them having this lifetime goal.” Tim started playing with Danny regularly at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and in the Bach Aria Group. “We worked very closely on the music of Bach together, and the experience of playing continuo in this phenomenal music was a great foundation for playing cello in a string quartet. Playing with Danny was constantly stimulating and challenging and inspiring.”
When the brothers finally decided to start the quartet they had always imagined, they asked Tim to be the cellist. “By then, I had had a chance to play with Danny’s brother Todd,” he recalled. “It was one of the most comfortable and natural collaborations I’ve ever had. When Danny asked if I wanted to join the two of them, I was startled and thrilled to be asked. It was an easy question to answer.”
The three of them quickly found their first violist, Catherine Metz, and began performing together as the Orion Quartet in 1988. They all had busy and stimulating careers, so they agreed to encourage one another to keep taking on other performing work in addition to playing in the group. “We came together as individuals who had our own distinct histories,” Tim explained. “We didn’t form in school. We were all headed in individual ways, and we found that as we got together, each one of us had an awful lot to contribute.”
I wondered whether there were challenges to balancing the quartet with other activities. Tim felt that “having other experiences outside of a central occupation is a natural part of musical life. I brought my own experiences and imagination to the Orion Quartet. I was always just being myself, but we are constantly being shaped by and constantly evolving through those external experiences.”
When the Orion Quartet was founded, one of Tim’s other projects was playing with another chamber group, the string quartet founded by violinist Felix Galimir. “It was an interesting situation to be in two different quartets. When I was with the Galimir Quartet, I felt like the Galimir cellist, and with the newly formed Orion Quartet, we had our own emotional and musical and personal world that we inhabited. I felt like playing in that world, so it was not a conflict.” In 1993, the Orions lost their original violist. Tim described the timing as quite a coincidence: “Mr. Galimir, at the end of the last concert of the season, surprised everybody in the hall, including the members of the quartet, by announcing to the audience that this was his last performance with the group.”
The sudden dissolution of the Galimir Quartet resulted in a stranded violist, Steve Tenenbom, whom the Orions quickly scooped up. Tim fondly remembered when they “got together at my house to try Steve out—and for Steve to try us out—and we had a great time reading things together. Afterwards, the other three were getting in their cars. As we were saying good night, Steve walked over to us and said ‘just one other thing, guys. Thanks for taking these five years preparing for me. Thanks a lot. I appreciate that.’ He’s always had a wonderful sense of humor. It was just natural with him, and it has been ever since.”
I asked Tim how the members of the quartet managed to stay together for such a long time, while also maintaining busy solo and chamber music careers. “We’ve always been a group of people looking to experiment, but not primarily with tempos or to agree on a sound color or a bow stroke. All of those things are natural outcomes of how you feel. Different people like the same bow stroke and the same tempo because they speak to the same kind of feeling in them. What has made it easy to work together is that we’re all playing music for the same reasons. Of course, we’re four different individuals, and the music speaks differently to each of us. But there’s some foundation in our instinctive response to music, which comes up from inside each of us, that makes sense to the others and speaks clearly and beautifully.”
This April, the Orions play their final concert together, a program of late quartets by Schubert and Beethoven, in Alice Tully Hall. “It’s tremendously meaningful to all of us to be doing this last concert and celebration here in New York, with the Chamber Music Society,” Tim told me at the end of our conversation. “This is our home—this city and this arts center. We’re so grateful to be playing for our home audience. It’s touching to see the response there has been to this concert. It’s been sold out already for months, which indicates there are people who really want to be there, and we really want to be there to play for them.”
Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center