There was a time when Mathieu Herzog put aside his viola, intending to never play classical music again. It wasn’t the music, which he loved; it was because “the competition between musicians” made him angry, he said in a recent interview. He was in his mid-teens, and began playing guitar and singing in a funk band in Paris. “It was kind of a new job, playing in bars every night.”
He wanted to build a home studio, so to earn some extra money he picked up his viola for a reasonably lucrative chamber orchestra gig. The orchestra’s concertmaster was Pierre Colombet, with whom, Herzog said, he had pretty strong musical alchemy. When it was over, Herzog returned to his guitar. Colombet, though, had other ideas. He visited Herzog a few months later and proposed playing in a string quartet.
“And I said, ‘No, no, I don’t want to play classical again,’ ” Herzog recalled by phone from a Montreal hotel room. But Colombet insisted, and the violist finally relented, agreeing to read through the Ravel Quartet with another violinist and a cellist.
“And suddenly,” said Herzog, “I realized that what I wanted to do was this.”
That was the birth, almost 15 years ago, of Quatuor Ébène, which gives its first public concert in Boston on Friday. The group — Colombet, Herzog, violinist Gabriel Le Magadure, and cellist Raphaël Merlin — stands out even among the dozens of talented new quartets. Not only have the Ébènes proven adept at reinvigorating familiar repertoire — their 2009 recording of the Debussy and Ravel quartets stands up to nearly any rival — but they’re also highly skilled arrangers of jazz and pop songs. They’ll play a selection of these in the second half of their Jordan Hall concert, after a first half of Mozart and Bartok.
‘This kind of feeling, to be a rock star for five minutes, it’s funny. But really, I prefer being in the middle of a Beethoven string quartet or something.’
Yet if the arrangements signify something new in chamber music, the Ébène’s success came about the old-fashioned way. “First of all, we are real workers,” said Herzog, not without a hint of pride. “We practice, we practice, and we still practice — I don’t want to say more than any other quartet in the world, but maybe. When I meet my colleagues [from other quartets] and I tell them how much we rehearse and how much we did, it’s always, ‘Really? Are you nuts?’ ”
They rehearse three to four hours on concert days, six or seven on off days. Herzog recalled one day in 2004 when they were preparing for the ARD International Music Competition in Munich; they rehearsed for 10 hours, after which he and Le Magadure worked an additional two or three hours on a single sequence of eight notes. (Somewhat ironically, given Herzog’s antipathy to competitions, they swept the ARD, which launched their careers.)
Before they play a piece new to their repertoire, they study and analyze it, so that its harmonic structure and historical position are clear before they pick up their instruments. “These hours and hours we do, on each piece, mean that we try to go deeper into every detail,” Herzog explained. “So there is nothing which is a coincidence. There is nothing by chance.”
Which doesn’t mean that every aspect of a piece is fixed immutably. “I don’t want to say that everything is decided,” he continued. “It’s not that there will be no improvisation. We think the more clear we are about what we want, the more free we can be.”
As for their growing catalog of arrangements — which they call “Fiction,” after their 2011 album — it may seem redolent of the excruciating crossover efforts that ensembles ill-advisedly undertake. But the Ébène members are helped by the fact that each had experience playing nonclassical music of one kind or another before the quartet, making them sound fresh and inventive.
“Raphaël is really the jazz one; Pierre is a bit more the jazz-rock one,” Herzog said. “I would be maybe the cheesy one who likes things not so intellectual as jazz. And Gabriel is a real rock fan. And that’s good because when we’re together and rehearse, and we start to create the arrangements, all this background we have comes in the bucket in the middle. And we start to build.”
One of the most unexpectedly poignant of the “Fiction” offerings is their version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” on which Herzog sings and the quartet is accompanied with subtle swing from drummer Richard Héry. “I love that moment. It reminds me of when I was young and singing in a different bar every night, and the girls are screaming.”
He wasn’t kidding. Herzog remembered a gig in a college town in Estonia, where “there were 750 girls, [age] 20 to 30” in the 1,000-seat hall. There was a chorus of screams when he announced “Streets of Philadelphia” and another when he began the song. “This kind of feeling, to be a rock star for five minutes, it’s funny. But really, I prefer being in the middle of a Beethoven string quartet or something.”
Like any other successful quartet, the Ébène members spend huge amounts of time together, in rehearsal and on the road. It’s a life that puts enormous pressure on their relationships. The friction, Herzog said, is inevitable.
“You cannot be in a string quartet and be four best friends,” he said. “Musically that cannot work. You also need the fight, to be very good. If you’re best friends, it’s always like, ‘Oh, you’re right, it’s very good.’ But there is no evolution. If you want to have an evolution in your interpretation, you sometimes have to try to understand the opposite of your idea, and also explain your idea. There are fights, but it’s normal.”
And even necessary, he continued, giving the example of one of Beethoven’s late quartets. “The music is so deep that you need also to go into emotions that are not always easy or good or happy. So it’s difficult, but it’s great because you know why you do it.”