The Austin-based Tosca String Quartet makes its San Antonio debut

Floria Tosca is so dependent on her man that when a firing squad under orders from treacherous Baron Scarpia executes him, she hurls herself to her death

The Tosca String Quartet
from the ramparts of Rome. The four women who constitute the cheeky Tosca String Quartet are considerably more resilient. Aside from the formidable Kronos, it is hard to think of another contemporary string ensemble that is as versatile and bold in its choice of repertoire, venues, and collaborators. Fresh from a year-long tour with David Byrne, the Tosca foursome makes its San Antonio debut on Sunday, May 25, with a concert at the Center for Spirituality and the Arts at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Puccini's opera gave the group its name only indirectly. Leigh Mahoney, first violin, Tracy Seeger, second violin, Ames Asbell, viola, and Sara Nelson, cello, were members of Austin's Tosca Tango Orchestra, a now-defunct organization dedicated to propagating nuevo tango with the kind of panache characteristic of Puccini's flamboyant heroine. In 1997, when they formed their string quartet, the women kept the name Tosca, and continued to perform tangos. All four members were trained in the techniques and traditions of the European canon at the School of Music of the University of Texas at Austin, but that has not kept them from pursuing interests in tango, jazz, rock, and country.

The fact that Tosca is an all-women quartet is, according to violist Asbell, a matter of coincidence rather than design. The fact that Tosca now has exactly the same configuration of members as when it started is the result of musical chairs; changes in personnel have occurred along the way, but the quartet continues with its original format.

The program for Tosca's May 25 concert provides some idea of the group's enthusiasms and ambitions. The first offerings of the evening will be tangos - both traditional and those composed by Argentine maestro Astor Piazzolla. The group will then perform Inamoria, a meditation on romantic inconstancy that incorporates computer-generated voices reading lines of poetry. The one-movement piece was composed expressly for Tosca by Jack Stamps, a music student at UT at San Antonio. The final entry in the San Antonio concert will be Dmitri Shostakovich's Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, a searing five-movement work that the Russian composer dedicated "to the memory of the victims of fascism and war." For more conventional string quartets, Shostakovich is still the cutting edge of the recital repertoire. But edgy

Sunday, May 25
$5 suggested donation
The Center for Spirituality
& the Arts
4707 Broadway
Tosca, which rarely performs Beethoven or Schubert, cuts into Shostakovich with as much verve as they put into the backup work they are doing for Ray Benson and Bonnie Raitt later this month. "We're trying to do what we love," explains Asbell.

Tosca has performed with Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Ray Price, John Cale, and Russell Crowe, and they appear on Home, the Grammy Award-winning album by the Dixie Chicks. Although they are often on the road, Tosca calls Austin, Texas, homebase, but they really feel at home in concert halls, nightclubs, and on CDs. Among their six albums is the soundtrack to Waking Life, the philosophical dialogue in cinematic form directed by Austin independent Richard Linklater. String quartet in residence at the Amstrong Community Music School, they have performed for Ballet Austin and as members of the orchestra for the Austin Lyric Opera. Tosca is also an active participant in the Golden Hornet Project - an Austin event that showcases the music of new composers.

Suffering under the yoke of local tyranny, 19th-century Rome was too small a place to contain the extravagant spirit of Floria Tosca. She might have survived in Paris. Two hundred years later, is it necessary to live in New York or Los Angeles in order to sustain a major career in music? Asbell doesn't think so. "I don't think we could do the variety of things we do anywhere else. In Austin, there aren't as many barriers to musical collaboration." •


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