December 01, 1980 12:00 PM

Just a decade ago, to get noticed in the predominantly male world of classical music, one female cellist performed topless. Today the women who comprise the unusual Primavera String Quartet have no need for such desperate measures. They are attracting worldwide attention on their musicianship. After besting 14 other groups in the coveted Naumburg Competition in Manhattan in 1977, they were proclaimed by a New York Times critic as candidates for “a place among the ranking international quartets.”

As it is, the ensemble is one of the newest quartets (formed in late 1975), youngest (average age: 25) and most photogenic (they were cast in the film Oliver’s Story, but their scene was cut, and Arthur Miller considered them for his controversial TV movie with Vanessa Redgrave, Playing for Time).

The Primavera—named for Botticelli’s famed painting—is an outgrowth of a friendship between cellist Melissa Meell and violist Diann Jezurski. Meell, 25, who comes from a nonmusical Baltimore family, became fascinated with the cello at 8, while attending a Philadelphia Orchestra concert. At 16 she enrolled in the Manhattan School of Music, but soon quit to become a free-lance musician. Jezurski, 27, took up the viola in third grade in her native Albany, N.Y. and at 15 was the Albany Symphony’s youngest member. She dropped out of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music “because stress wasn’t placed on chamber music.”

The two women started playing duets after meeting at a 1972 summer chamber music festival. “But there’s not a whole lot written for just cello and viola,” notes Melissa. “We needed violins to play quartets.” First to be recruited was Martha Caplin, 29, who grew up in Cleveland, where her father was a renowned voice teacher. “I wasn’t born with a set of Stradivarius vocal cords,” she says, so she took up the violin. She was a soloist with the Cleveland Orchestra before earning a master’s from Juilliard. Finally, Deborah Berlin, 21, joined Primavera last year when the group’s second violinist opted out. Berlin, the daughter of a South African surveyor who left Cape Town for political reasons, has lived in Holland, Israel and Australia as her family sought new roots; in 1977 she appeared on the same program in England with the original Primavera. When a replacement was needed, Berlin was the unanimous choice.

Since the quartet receives just $2,000 a concert, the women free-lance 10 weeks a year as members of Frank Sinatra’s orchestra. “We once heard him tell his bodyguard how much he likes Itzhak Perlman and Pinchas Zukerman, so we figure he’s into chamber music,” reports Caplin, but the singer has yet to attend them in concert. Still, the extra pay helps the women afford separate hotel rooms on their 40 or so Primavera dates a year. “There’s a basic need to maintain individuality,” explains Caplin. But they treasure their moments of musical togetherness, Meell adds: “Finding musicians to play with in a chamber quartet is like getting married, only harder—it’s a divine polygamy.”

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