An uncommon change coming to Iowa State's Ames Piano Quartet

Retirements of William David and Mahlon Darlington will only be the second membership change in three decades for Iowa State's chamber ensemble.


The Ames Piano Quartet, clockwise from top left, Mahlon Darlington, Jonathan Sturm, George Work and William David.

A rare personnel change is in the offing for one of the globe's best-known piano quartets.

Two members of the Ames Piano Quartet, the resident chamber ensemble at Iowa State University, are retiring at the end of the academic year. It marks only the second membership change in more than three decades for the quartet known by chamber music followers for its gifted musicianship and for mastering its repertoire.

Professors of music Mahlon Darlington, violin, and William David, piano, will be retiring from the faculty. The remaining members, cellist George Work, professor, and violist Jonathan Sturm, associate professor, will be joined by two soon-to-be-hired faculty members, preserving the ensemble that started in the 1970s.

Concert on campus April 1
Music lovers have one more opportunity to see Iowa State's version of the Fab Four perform on campus. A Sunday, April 1, concert at 7:30 p.m. in Martha-Ellen Tye Recital Hall will feature a variety of pieces from Brahms, Dvorak, Faure, Beethoven and others.

"We will have something for everybody," said Darlington. "Rather than perform three or four complete works, we compiled 10 of our most favorite movements. It will be a program that will be very enjoyable. It will be a lot of fun."

Although the ensemble name has led some to believe they will see four pianos, it's the lone keyboard that differentiates a piano quartet from the all-string ensembles.

"Piano quartets are few and far between," said John Gilbert, professor of music and chair of strings at Texas Tech University in a 2010 interview. "The body of literature for piano quartets is much smaller than for a string quartet. You can master the entire repertoire, which is why they are so good. They are exceptional at what they do."

With only one personnel change in more than 30 years, consistency is a hallmark of the Ames Quartet. David joined then-ISU orchestra director Larry Burkhalter in the mid-1970s to form half of the original "Iowa State Piano Quartet." Darlington became a member in 1976 and Work in 1981. The retooled foursome started playing concerts, traveled more and hired a professional manager.

Two years later they moved to a new management company that still represents them today. Along the way the group acquired its present name.

"There was confusion with our original Iowa State name," said Darlington. "People would ask, 'Are you from Iowa City?'" Not only did the title Ames Piano Quartet better identify the group, "It also sounded better," Work once explained. Sturm joined in 1998 when Burkhalter retired, ensuring another long stint of continuity rarely found among ensembles including string quartets and trios.

The quartet has been a good ambassador for Iowa State. Music has taken the ensemble to Europe, Taiwan, South Africa, Cuba, Russia and throughout North America. The 2003 Cuban trip was the first by an American chamber ensemble in more than 40 years.

Most recorded piano quartet
The Ames Piano Quartet is the most recorded piano quartet ever. Its 15th album was released this year under the Dorian Sono Luminus music label and includes French works by Theodore Dubois and two of his students.

The eight-CD boxed set, which includes many of the quartet's recordings made between 1989 and 2009, has received good reviews. MusicWeb International wrote: "It consolidates 20 years of recording activity that reveals consistency, tonal homogeneity and a probing attitude to the repertoire, as well as a dignified approach to the established canon."

The April 1 concert will be memorable for David and Darlington. Both have family members attending including David's two children and grandchildren and all eight of Darlington's siblings. "Some of them have never heard our quartet perform in person," Darlington said, adding that one sister is coming all the way from Italy.

"My feelings about leaving the quartet and ISU are bittersweet," David said. "After 39 years here I am ready for a change and some rest. But I have loved my time here and will miss my students, colleagues and playing in our group immensely."

The quartet has one more concert planned after Sunday's performance in Ames, April 21 in Quincy, Ill.

See an Ames Piano Quartet feature article from 2010