- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 7, 2001

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Behind a burgundy curtain, a nameless string quartet waits for the college theater to fill.
Most people filing into the 475-seat auditorium know the quartets identity, yet its name is conspicuously absent from the marquee.
Once considered budding superstars of their generation, members of Blacksburgs Audubon Quartet are forbidden by court order to use the groups name during performances. They have been fired by Virginia Tech, their sponsoring institution, which wants nothing to do with an ongoing battle that has rocked the chamber-music world.
David Ehrlich, 52, the quartets estranged first violinist, says he was improperly kicked out last year and is suing the other three members for $2 million in an effort to repair his reputation.
"If I simply walked away, it would have given the impression that I had done something wrong," says Mr. Ehrlich, who says he believes the other members have been conspiring against him for years.
Mr. Ehrlichs suit is considered by some of chamber musics masters to be antithetical to the very nature of the music they play.
String quartets, which perform without a conductor, always have been havens for musicians interested in democracy; the violins, cello and viola have equal parts in a musical conversation. While squabbles are legendary among some of the best string quartets, chamber musicians should solve their problems themselves and never in court, says Robert Mann, founder of the prestigious Juilliard Quartet in New York.
"Were all horrified with what this man is doing," Mr. Mann says of Mr. Ehrlich. "If anyone who becomes disaffected with his group can sue the others for money, it would be disastrous."
Quartet members Clyde "Tom" Shaw, Doris Lederer and Akemi Takayama see Mr. Ehrlichs litigation as the final shove from a first violinist who they say has bullied them for years.
Mr. Shaw, 52, who founded the Audubon Quartet in 1974, says what is at stake is no less than the groups creative freedom. "Were fighting for the very ability to perform with whomever we want," Mr. Shaw says.
The Audubon Quartet, so named to evoke feelings of elegance and beauty, has been at the top of the classical-music scene for two decades in Blacksburg, a university town known mostly for Virginia Techs football team. When the university invited the groups members to settle here as its resident artists in 1981, the members already had played at the White House and had won numerous international awards.
As the others departed, the quartet added Miss Lederer, a violist from Seattle, in 1976; Mr. Ehrlich, originally from Israel, at first violin in 1984; and finally Miss Takayama, from Tokyo, at second violin in 1997.
Like many groups, the quartet has dealt with long-standing creative and business-related problems. Almost always, however, the tensions centered on Mr. Ehrlich, Mr. Shaw says.
David Salness, who played second violin with the group from 1985 to 1997, says one of the biggest problems with Mr. Ehrlich was that he always wanted the lead and wouldnt listen to complaints from the others about his showboating.
"He increasingly became more difficult over the years," says Mr. Salness, who says he left the group primarily because of problems with Mr. Ehrlich.
Most recently, there was the matter of the Bergonzi violin. Mr. Ehrlich says he had "fallen in love" with the $900,000 instrument and wanted to buy one as early as the summer of 1997. In an effort to raise money for the violin, he promised a concert to anyone who would make a donation.
"I was flabbergasted," says Mr. Shaw, who adds that he was not told of the offer until years later. "This is an example of a person using his position in an organization for his own personal gain."
Virginia Tech later bought a different Bergonzi violin for Mr. Ehrlich to use. Tensions finally erupted in February of last year, when Mr. Ehrlich confronted members of the group, saying he thought they were spinning out of control. Reading from a prepared statement, Mr. Ehrlich told the group that he had initiated two lawsuits against Mr. Shaw.
"Until then, I wanted to try everything to work things out," Miss Takayama says, "but after that, I didnt think we could continue."
"Our bond of trust and respect was violated that day," Mr. Shaw adds.
A few weeks later, Mr. Shaw handed Mr. Ehrlich a letter dismissing him from the group. He was ordered to turn over the Bergonzi violin to Virginia Tech and immediately return his studio keys, music and all quartet-related documents to the group.
"I was only given three hours to do all of this," Mr. Ehrlich says. "Ive worked in many cities, but never have I been treated like this."
Mr. Ehrlich, in turn, filed a lawsuit against the other members. He later demanded that they be fined and imprisoned for playing together under a different name without him.
Ever since, the court battle has grown into a full-fledged brouhaha as both sides have courted supporters throughout the tight-knit chamber-music community. Mr. Ehrlich hired a public relations firm. Friends of Mr. Shaw and the others created a Web site ( www.exit118.com/~audubon ) that compiled pages of court documents.
Mark Johnson, a cellist with the Vermeer Quartet in Chicago, says the Audubon Quartet likely has made many young quartets re-examine their own termination procedures.
However, Mr. Johnson, who played with the Audubon Quartet several times, says Mr. Ehrlich was treated so badly that he has a right to sue. "There was no offer to allow him to resign. There was no time given for him to find other employment," Mr. Johnson says. "Its just not done this way.
"His reputation has certainly been harmed. A while ago, I proposed his name to another quartet, and they were not interested in touching him because of this mess."
Pretrial motions in the $2 million lawsuit begin at the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, Va., on July 12. A judge in Pennsylvania, where the quartet is chartered, is also considering whether to allow the three remaining members to play again as the Audubon Quartet.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shaw, Miss Lederer and Miss Takayama will continue playing together, inviting others to sit in as first violin. Mr. Shaw insists that the Audubon Quartet is not finished. Without their university stipends, retirement and health care benefits, however, all admit it will be difficult to stay in Blacksburg.
Mr. Ehrlich says he will continue collaborating with other chamber musicians and teaching music lessons with his wife at a music academy they started in Blacksburg.
He says he hopes a judge will someday clear his name.
"My reputation out there has been harmed," Mr. Ehrlich says. "If there ever is a ruling thats very positive toward me and very negative toward them, it will show that there is some reason I have been doing this. … That would be very interesting."

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