The Alexander String Quartet and music historian Robert Greenberg begin a series exploring the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich on Saturday mornings at the St. John’s Presbyterian Church in Berkeley. San Francisco Performances presents the series, which runs for four performances before coming to Herbst Theatre in the new year for an additional five concerts. Violist Paul Yarborough says for more than 20 years they’ve teamed with Greenberg to present concerts with context.

There’s more information about the series at the San Francisco Performance website.

This is a chance for Berkeley audiences to hear what the ASQ and Greenburg presented last season at Herbst. They’ll play the first seven quartets, plus the piano quintet in these Berkeley concerts, and then finishing the remaining 8 in San Francisco. “We’re going to be doing all of the Shostakovich quartets, plus three other chamber works, including a magnificent viola sonata,” Greenberg says. “This will be spread over nine concerts. This wonderful quartet lets me talk, they play musical examples that support the talk, and then they perform the actual piece that we’ve been discussing.” The ensemble and Greenberg have collaborated on this type of performance for more than 20 years. Violist Yarborough says: “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like an audience was more ready, more primed to appreciate the music we play than after they’ve heard his talk. As a performer who really likes to see the music hit home with an audience, this is a winner.” Part of the challenge is to convey the kinds of political pressures that Shostakovich faced when he was composing. “We can’t even come close to comprehending what the Soviet Union was like, particularly under Stalin,” Greenberg says. “And so my job really is to create that context. And to understand Shostakovich not in our terms, but in his terms, and in his day.” The Alexander String Quartet has recorded the complete Shostakovich quartets, and performed them many times. “I’ve gotten to know them all as old friends, in a way,” Paul Yarborough explains. “They each have a feel about them, and yet there’s so much in common, there’s so much continuity in Shostakovich’s string quartets. There are elements that seem to keep coming back.”