The Alexander String Quartet and music historian Robert Greenberg begin a two-season long exploration of the complete string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich tomorrow morning at the Herbst Theatre. San Francisco Performances presents the series, which begins at 10 tomorrow, with the first and second quartets that Shostakovich wrote. 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 Performances website.

In the first season of performances (there are also concerts on Saturday mornings in early February, March, and May) they’ll play the first two quartets, and proceed through all 15 in chronological order. “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 two seasons, 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.”