Posted Wed, 02 Sep 2015 15:45:00 +0000
Although we don't do weddings, Serafin String Quartet does relate to the phrase "something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue!!"
As a string quartet, we have the privilege of access to a vast archive of time-honored masterpieces which we revere, and audiences relish. OLD masterworks, such as those by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, are featured in our 2015-2016 season repertoire. Such works of art make up the centerpiece of our programming every season. We love to delve into works by these great works, and masters from Haydn, forward. Also this season, we look forward sharing works by Schumann, Borodin, Bartok, Grieg, Shostakovich, and many others.
At the same time, we take great satisfaction in learning NEW works, including works that have recently been written and have never, or rarely, been performed. String quartets (ranging from 4 to 9 minutes each) written by the 27 year-old rising star, Julia Adolphe, will be an exciting part of our repertoire this season. We look forward to the honor of giving the New York premieres of two of Adolphe's works when we perform at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall on March 14, 2016.
Borrowing is a less frequent experience for quartet players, simply because the original quartet repertoire is so extensive and so marvelous. But we do occasionally play a work that we BORROW and that has been arranged or transcribed for quartet, such as the delightful little Spiccato Caprice by Arthur Foote (one of America's earliest classical composers) which we performed at the Highlands Festival this summer. Or, sometimes a composer borrows a familiar melody or theme and utilizes it to create an original work, such as Jennifer Higdon's setting of Amazing Grace for string quartet, which is also borrowed in the sense that she re-wrote it for quartet after originally setting it for SATB choir.
Playing something BLUE is more of a reach for quartet (we don't often delve into the blues genre). But, in our case, Serafin Quartet has enjoyed the wonderful opportunity to perform and do the premier recording of Higdon's Sky Quartet, the elegiac slow movement of which is titled Blue Sky. For those not familiar with Higdon's thematic and stylistic vernacular, Blue is an important theme for her, including her pivotal orchestral work Blue cathedral which is one of the most performed contemporary orchestral works, having been performed over 500 times.
As we traverse the wide and wonderful string quartet landscape this coming season, we hope to share with our audiences the long and continuing legacy of interesting and excellent works at our fingertips!
-Kate Ransom, violinist, Serafin String Quartet
Discovery and Revisiting: Forty Years of Chamber Music
Posted Wed, 15 Jul 2015 19:23:00 +0000
Traveling to the mountains of Highlands, North Carolina in June to play four performances with Serafin String Quartet was heartwarming and gratifying. Thirty-two years ago, I first ventured to Highlands, as a 20-something-year-old member of Alexander String Quartet. We served as quartet-in-residence for several years for what is now the Highlands-Cashiers Chamber Music Festival. Eventually, diversification of the artists opened up as ASQ was being offered other summer engagements, and the festival branched out. Today, the festival continues to feature international artists, both established and emerging, and programming is extremely varied - even encompassing solo artists and, on occasion, a small chamber orchestra.
Over the years since 1983, I have missed the festival only a few times, due to extenuating circumstances - and there is no place that feels more like "summer home" to me than Highlands. My hosts are dear friends; the sights, sounds and scents of the mountains are soothing and relaxing; collaborations are with exceptional artists; and the audiences are enthusiastic and engaged. The experience of revisiting and sharing this festival experience with my current ensemble, Serafin String Quartet, and of witnessing their discovery of this gem festival and location, was truly sublime.
Reflecting on the many performances I've participated in at the festival, I calculate that I must have played on more than 160 programs there over the years!! During that time, I have had the pleasure of tackling many works brand new to me - and also come back to familiar works, time and again, in a glorious and enriching way, with seasoned artists from whom I have learned so much and enjoyed music-making.
The building of a quartet relationship is famously (infamously?) challenging - in that our task is to meld, blend, hone, and polish four techniques, attitudes about style, sets of opinions, and personalities into one coherent, cohesive and compelling voice. "Mixing it up" with varied colleagues as we do at festivals, in "time-limited," musical collaborations, is different from being part of an established ensemble. It is an experience that can be "loved and left," without the pressure or need to establish commitment to a "way of doing things" as a group for more than one or two performances. That virtually eliminates the stress of "consensus-building" on the deep level required of ongoing partnership.
"Discovery" and "revisiting" become part of a chamber musician's life in short order. Over our years together, if we stay together, Serafin String Quartet will learn and perform works repeatedly. Some of these we all start for the first time together, and some we may have individually learned at age 16, 18 or 30 - somewhere along the way with other groups, perhaps guided by excellent and experienced coaches.
The balancing act of bringing together time-tested perspective from our individual musical backgrounds, along with the excitement and freshness of an entirely new adventure that we are all sharing from the starting point, is all part of the richness of what we experience in life as chamber musicians. The common denominator, whether in "discovery" or "revisiting" is remaining open to what can be learned - from those who have more familiarity and intimate connection to a work, and from those who have a fresh and unshaped palette.
Summer festivals are an inspiring and energizing "melting pot" of musical encounter. I have always been recharged and my perspective enhanced and enlightened by what I learn from my colleagues from around the globe. The biggest thrill for me, however, is bringing this "home" to my chosen quartet partners and forging with them a musical expression that is "ours." Although not always easy, the result of creating "one voice" from "four voices" is the most gratifying experience of artistry that I have known. And the best musical partnerships are devoted to finding "discovery" in revisiting a familiar work.
I look forward to many more musical adventures with chamber music colleagues - at home with the Serafins, and around the globe! The experience of great art, revisited a thousand times, only becomes all the richer the more one returns!
-Kate Ransom, violinist
Aaaand we're back!
Posted Tue, 23 Sep 2014 16:21:00 +0000
Greetings all! What better day than the first day of autumn than to say hello and give you a status update about the beginning of our new season. We all returned from our summer travels and performances last month, and have been hitting the books to be ready for an exciting start to 2014-15. And the last couple of weeks have already provided us quite a whirlwind of activity. Here's what we've been up to:
Celebrating with our friend, Julie
We were honored to be a part of the University of Delaware's Music Department Faculty Gala Concert on September 13th, and delighted to be starting our 5th year as Quartet-in-Residence at UD (more details on all our activities there to come very soon). But this concert was extra special, as it was a celebration of a wonderful pianist on faculty there, Julie Nishimura, who has been at UD for 25 years now. She put together performances with a variety of faculty artists, and SSQ got to play the opening movement of the glorious Schumann Piano Quintet to finish the first half. Luckily for us, we'll get to play the entire work with Julie at our Fall UD Concert, Friday, November 7th at 8PM (in the Center for the Arts, Gore Recital Hall)
We've also gotten a jump start with the fabulous UD chamber music students, having had our first master class with them this past week. Lots of great rep and wonderful musicians - it's going to be a good year.
Some new outreach
In collaboration with the Music School of Delaware and UD, we are now offering chamber music coaching and performances at the Archmere Academy in Wilmington, Delaware. Archmere is a wonderful preparatory school with devoted teachers and bright, driven students. There is a small group of fine string players, and we'll be working with them in chamber music coachings this year. After presenting a short concert to the entire student body a couple of weeks ago (they were an amazing audience!), we had our first meeting with the string students last week, and look forward to a fun and fruitful relationship.
Getting intimate in Philadelphia
Bet that got your attention! We were delighted to play at Philadelphia's World Cafe Live again, on September 14th. We had been at WCL for last year's CD Release and Season Launch party, and loved the venue and the people there. So, we decided to have a special kind of collage concert this time, centering around the ideas and emotions put forth so viscerally in Leos Janacek's second String Quartet, titled "Intimate Letters". In addition to the Janacek, we also played music by Mozart, Haydn, Grieg, and Andrew Norman, and were joined by a fantastic poet and reader, Craig Franson, who shared poetry by Coleridge and Shelley. It was a great deal of fun, and a nice way to launch into some repertoire that we will be taking around a lot this season.
Sipping and savoring
Coming up tomorrow night is the first performance in a series we are very excited about, called Sip and Savor. This is a 3-part series in the intimate setting of Kennett Flash in Kennett Square, PA, where we will be delving into three major works, picking them apart a little and putting them in some musical and historical context (that's the sipping), and then performing the entire work (we hope you'll savor that part). Up first, tomorrow: the beautiful and ground-breaking String Quartet in g minor by Claude Debussy. Hope to see you there! (Wednesday, September 24, 7:30 PM)
More to come, for sure, but we thought we'd just let you know how thrilling a start to the new season we've already had!
Relax, refresh, and reload
Posted Tue, 08 Jul 2014 02:38:00 +0000
Happy summer, friends of SSQ!
Summer for us Serafins is a bit of a scattered affair this year, with various events, festivals, vacations, work - but not all together as a quartet. While we'll miss each other, and will feel a sense of urgency when we hit the ground running in August for a rush of rehearsals to launch the 2014-15 season, our time away is also a refreshing time to expand our horizons as individuals and come back to quartet with a new wealth of experiences, inspiration, and maybe a little extra sleep.
We had a little bit going on in June, having a week-long rehearsal retreat, to push through some new repertoire that we "test drove" for a private house concert. It was good to get going with some music new to all of us, like the Janaček "Intimate Letters" Quartet and the Grieg g minor String Quartet, and revisit music that we all knew, just not necessarily together as SSQ. But now, we've gone to various places around North America for a variety of activities, professional and personal.
Kate will be spending a good bit of time at the home base, continuing her tireless and great work for the Music School of Delaware, as their President and CEO, and will also take time to travel for family visits and some performing (including a collaboration with her long-time recital partner, Tony Sirianni). She just had a lovely visit with her delightful and vivacious mother, Nancy!
Lisa is spending a number of weeks at the Colorado Music Festival in Boulder, where in addition to performing orchestrally and as a chamber musician, she also acts as the orchestra's personnel manager. (no small job!) Whenever spare time allows, she also loves taking advantage of the great hiking and camping opportunities Colorado provides.
Esme has a variety of events planned this summer. Having already given a guest master class at the Primrose International Viola Competition and Festival in Los Angeles, she will be performing at the Techne Music Festival in Pennsylvania, at the Pikes Falls Chamber Music Festival in Vermont, and serving as a faculty member at the ArtsAhimsa Festival for adult amateur chamber musicians in Lenox, Massachusetts. She left a little time to go see her family in Canada, too.
Larry is also hopping around a fair bit. Currently accompanying his daughter at a Suzuki violin camp in Ithaca, NY, he will be heading to Techne Music Festival in Pennsylvania (and playing some with Esme!), where he serves on the faculty and as a featured performer. He will also be a guest performer at the International Double Reed Society Conference in New York City in August. In between all of that, he'll spend some time with his family in his slice of heaven, Silver Bay, NY, on Lake George.
But even apart, we're all still proud Serafins, and look forward to getting back together in August to gear up for an exciting and full upcoming season! We hope your summer plans treat you to all the rest and refreshment that you need, as well!
Home Sweet Home
Posted Thu, 16 Jan 2014 18:41:00 +0000
SSQ was delighted to start our 2014 off with a bang this past weekend, performing the first of two concerts this season at the Arts at Trinity series in Wilmington, Delaware. This is the series' third year of existence, and the third year we've been honored to be a part of it.
Along with the excitement of performing Wolf's Italian Serenade and Mendelssohn's Op. 12 for the first time as a quartet, and the Debussy Quartet for the first time in our current SSQ configuration, we were ecstatic about the turnout, which was huge, even if it hadn't been a dreary, rainy evening. The place was packed, and the energy of the crowd was truly infectious. What makes this even more wonderful for us, though, is that Wilmington is home for the quartet.
While our work and lives external to the quartet keep us from being on tour a whole lot, we enjoy getting on the road to new places far and near. We have a short tour of Florida coming up this month, and in addition to the warm, sunny weather to look forward to, we're excited to share ourselves with new audiences who haven't met us yet. It's a really special privilege to go new places and have people show up to hear us!
But playing at home, for audience members, friends, and family that we've known for so many years - this is perhaps the most special thing we get to do. As the quartet grows and matures as an ensemble, we feel that our relationship and friendship with our local audience is part of our personal and ensemble growth, too. And to walk on and off stage to the smiling faces of our friends, neighbors, significant others - this is really thrilling. (and they clap for us, even if we forgot to do the dishes the night before!)
So, as happy and honored as we are to get to play all over the country, it's a special privilege to come home, too. So, for our local friends, we hope to see you at our "homes" again this spring, March 2nd at the University of Delaware and April 26th back at Trinity. We'll look for those smiling, familiar faces!
The Misadventures of a Traveling String Quartet
Posted Wed, 24 Jul 2013 22:25:00 +0000
As we are in the dog days of summer, with everyone in the quartet scattered about doing their various summer projects, it seemed a good time to blog about travel. Not the fun kind that takes you to your favorite vacation destination, but the very different, very specialized business travel of a string quartet. [WARNING]: As the cellist in the Serafin, I probably have the most gruesome war stories to share - some of this is not for the faint of heart.
While we do not travel as much as some quartets who tour for the majority of their work, Serafin Quartet has taken a number of trips by plane and automobile, and the travels, while usually fun and fulfilling (certainly from the performance standpoint), offer unique challenges. Traveling by car is not too big a deal, other than the extra time and energy required to be on the road. In our trips, we have tended to travel in pairs, mostly because of logistics of where we all live, with separate departures from Philadelphia and Wilmington. Driving together to concerts and tours has been a wonderful way to get to know one another and enjoy each other's company. The most compelling reason to drive to destinations far away, instead of flying (we have driven as far as Atlanta from our home base), is my darn cello. We have flown too, but it's a special, and expensive, challenge.
Given that I play a nearly 300-year-old Italian instrument worth way more than I am, we always purchase a seat, so flying to a concert means purchasing five tickets, not four - a pricy proposition, even if the concert presenter is paying us pretty well. You might be thinking, "But won't the good people at [insert your favorite carrier's name her] Airlines take good care of the cello in baggage if you tell them how valuable and fragile it is?" My answer to that, sadly, is this:
This (not the Testore, but a couple of cellos ago) is what happened the last time I checked a cello as baggage, in what I thought was a very secure travel case, back in the summer of 1996. When confronted with this evidence, the head of baggage at La Gaurdia Airport, for an airline not to be mentioned (but it rhymes with "Flaberican"), actually wondered aloud that perhaps I did this to the instrument so I could get some money back. So, no, I don't check the cello anymore.
Flying with the cello as a ticket-holding passenger is a very special way to travel, sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious. I've worked on some pre-emptive responses to well-meaning folks at the airport, such as "Don't worry, it fits through the X-ray machine" and "No, I don't wish that I played the flute", and I still get a quasi-sadistic sense of giddiness when I see the horrified look on a flight attendant's face, right before saying "It's okay, it has a ticket". While my SSQ colleagues get to their seats and put their violins and viola in the overhead compartment, I go through the process of getting a seatbelt extender and strapping old Testore in its seat, usually with a few more pre-emptive remarks: "Yes, full fare, I'm afraid", "Yes, I should get its snack" and, oftentimes a reprise of "No, I don't wish I played the flute."
Other than the photo-evidenced incident above, though, I have generally had pretty smooth sailing, including our flight to London a few years ago, where the very earnest people at British Airways secured the cello into the seat for me in such a way that it would have likely been the only one on board to survive a major crash. It looked something like this:
Some other cellists, and recently some notable ones, have not fared so well in their travels. The troubles of famed cellist Lynn Harrell with Delta Airlines were just highlighted, to typically hyperbolic and hilarious effect, by Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central (watch at your own risk!):
A few years ago, Greg Beaver, of the wonderful Chiara Quartet, was told he had to upgrade his cello's tickets to first class to be able to board and fly. Seeing as that would have destroyed any earnings the quartet would have made, he had to send his wife (also his quartet mate) on the flight with their 11-month-old daughter while he waited for another flight with a less combative flight crew.
And earlier this year, touring cellist Alban Gerhardt had his bow and cello damaged (the bow most likely destroyed) when a TSA agent carelessly closed the case after inspecting it.
So, it can be a big challenge for us to travel, particularly flying with the cello, but when it comes down to it, it's a worthwhile hurdle to overcome in getting to do what we do, even without the frequent flyer miles.
The Magic of Outreach Concerts
Posted Mon, 01 Jul 2013 20:04:00 +0000
It's the start of summer! Like so many families, organizations or other groups at the end of a season, we Serafins were engaged in some planning for the next season recently. We are excited about so many upcoming concerts, some of them are special "outreach" concerts and I thought it would be a good time to talk about what that actually means as its an important movement in classical programming these days.
If you've never been to an outreach concert (sometimes called interactive, maybe even educational outreach or depending on the audience "family" concert) it means that we performers will be trying to engage the audience beyond just sharing beautiful music. Everyone in the quartet has engaged in different types of these performances. It could be as simple as talking to the audience about who we are, showcasing each instrument alone briefly if (usually younger) audiences aren't familiar with each instrument. It could be quite musicological or theoretical, like a concert we recently played at Dickinson College where we spoke of the structure of our Beethoven op 132 quartet, breaking down sections, playing motives and counter motives in isolation and showing how themes transform throughout movements. This was for a class with some prior background in musical history and theory. For another outreach event, we got a little more abstract, engaging with a poetry class and hearing the aspects of rhythm, meter, syntax or even phonetic artistry they were relating to in our music. Here it's really important to note part of the magic of outreach concerts: they are a two way street! We in the quartet are so inspired by our new knowledge of audience perceptions that it changes how we play! Hearing how the audience responds to a particular phrase, or sound heightens our own awareness of that element and colours our feelings about it when we play.
Of course the idea of pre-concert lectures is nothing new, but an exciting aspect of many new outreach performances is that they try to engage listeners with multiple intelligences, not just analyzing the piece or providing a historical framework, but actually getting audience members to use their own musical skills to experience important elements in the piece they are about to hear. They might use clapping to experiment with rhythms, or conduct expressively, sing through some motives or direct harmonies. In other words, audience members get to improvise musically, guided by the musicians to get a thrilling sense of what it might feel like to create music. This new brand of outreach concerts is the subject of my dissertation and I'm thrilled to be playing in a group where every musician is up for experimenting with different kinds of concerts. Of course, we also will always love the traditional kind of concerts. To me personally, the music we play is often so deified in my mind that it deserves only the most holy temple, a concert environment of stillness and absolute simplicity to frame the piece.
So, dear readers/audience, I would love to hear from you: have you ever been to an outreach concert that was meaningful to you? What different experiences have you had beyond traditional types of concerts? Come talk to us after a concert and maybe you can be part of our planning sessions in the future.
Til next time,
Intersections – Creator Meets Interpreter
Posted Wed, 19 Jun 2013 16:14:00 +0000
I have always found it insight-producing to play a composition to the composer in preparing for performance. If it is a commissioned work, brand new, of course it is especially helpful simply to make sure the indications and instructions are being properly interpreted and are conveying what the composer intends, and to catch any mistakes in the notation.
I have enjoyed the tremendous privilege of playing to various composers over my 30 years as a performer, including young composers still learning or honing their craft in university, but also towering figures such as Aaron Copland and Elliott Carter. My musical journey has most recently presented the opportunity to play to Jennifer Higdon, as part of the Serafin String Quartet’s current recording project.
I have also played to George Rochberg, Jacob Druckman, Martin Bresnick, Maurice Wright, and a score of younger, wonderful, but not as well-established composers. In each and every case, it is a mind-opening experience and produces insights that help to understand the individual composer’s personality, compositional process, style and “lexicon”.
Serafin Quartet often plays to college-level composition students. Usually the aspiring composers are hearing their composition performed for the first time (other than through a midi file or keyboard). After playing the composition to them, we often ask them if it sounds as they had imagined it would, or was anything surprising. Their answers are diverse – some are excited to hear how it sounds, and some are disappointed in the results. Sometimes we try adjustments to tempo or character to try to get at what they intended. Then we discuss how they might want to mark indications differently to more precisely convey their intentions for times when they are not present to converse directly with the performers. We explain how their indications or lack of indications leads us, especially as string players, to respond with tempo choices, strokes, dynamic changes, bowings, stylistic character, and phrasing. We explore how we play in response to one marking versus another – for example, if we see a line or dot over a note, slurs or no slurs - and we explain and demonstrate how the indications encourage us to play in one manner or another.
Working with Jennifer Higdon on our upcoming Naxos release of her early chamber works was especially gratifying. She was so positive and encouraging about our approach to interpreting her works and the results we were getting. (It is affirming to hear that one’s interpretation is hitting the mark for the creator of the work!)
Also, she shared freely what she is after in the pieces we played to her, and even what was going on in her life that prompted the emotional content – confirming that we were finding the right emotional landscape in the work, although we had known nothing of specific personal experiences the work reflected. We also learned about her polyphonic inclinations – the idea that, in many sections, she wanted independent lines to interweave, rather than a line or lines standing out in clear relief. This gave us greater insight into how to approach the balancing of intricately intertwined lines. And we were able to confirm that in these works she was not feeling absolute strictness in a given tempo – that it was ok with her if the music moved a little faster or slower than specific tempo markings.
In every case, the insights from meeting and spending time with the composer are meaningful. Even when the composer (as was Elliott Carter) is quieter and introverted – it is meaningful to feel his/her energy, to experience wit and/or seriousness, to observe where their ideas and expression seem to reside (“head” or “heart”, for example. It all helps the interpreter to feel more confident and assured about choosing a direction in deciding how to play the content of the music. Then, our technical choices can reflect more closely and deeply the inner workings of the composer’s creative soul.
I treasure that place where we, the “interpreters”, meet the composer – the “creator”, whether in-person or simply from the pages of history and musical scores. It is a special intersection and a privilege to meet there!
A maiden voyage with late Beethoven
Posted Tue, 05 Mar 2013 18:34:00 +0000
Since I was a teenager, I have lived in states of both complete reverence for and utter fear of Beethoven's late string string quartets (some of the last music he wrote - Opp. 127, 130, 131, 132, 135). I was hooked, and my fear was begun, upon hearing his monumental c# minor quartet, Op. 131, for the first time. At that point, I ran out and got myself a score and recordings, and pored over this music in a similar way that a theologian must look at religious texts. I found the music fascinating, confounding and incredibly moving. As a teenager, and then a young college music student, I understood that I had a connection with late Beethoven, but I was too intimidated to actually play it.
Fast forward, um, a lot of years, and here I am, getting ready to play the Op. 132 String Quartet in a minor with SSQ, this weekend at the University of Delaware, the first late quartet I will have performed. The interesting thing: I'm still fascinated, confounded, moved, and terribly intimidated by this music. When I was a student at the Kneisel Hall Chamber Music Festival, at the ripe old age of 20, I had expressed my late-Beethoven fears to Ron Copes, who is currently the 2nd violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet and was my chamber music coach at the time. His advice to me: "Don't be scared, dig in!" He said that this music will always be challenging and difficult, and never completely understood, so play it early and often. Did I listen to this sage advice? D'oh!
I guess I have some catching up to do. And I'm excited to get started on my late journey with my wonderful Serafin colleagues. Op. 132 is an expansive work of over 45 minutes, consisting of five movements in a kind of arch form. The outer movements are big, driven and intense. The 2nd and 4th movements are stylized versions of popular older forms (the 2nd being a minuet of sorts, and the 4th actually titled "Alla marcia", or "like a march"), with unusual twists and turns, particularly in the presentation of meter and rhythm. But where this work draws its greatest power is the central slow movement, which is, without exaggeration, one of the most moving musical utterances ever created. The full title, believe it or not, is "A Convalescent's Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Divinity, in the Lydian Mode". The Lydian mode is one of the ancient "church" modes, a way of organizing music harmonically and melodically back in the Medieval and Renaissance eras of music, before the advent of major and minor scales and keys. So this music, while reaching out to the divine, also reaches back in time. The third movement, often referred to simply as "Heiliger Dankgesang", is by far the largest of the entire quartet, and reflects Beethoven's thanks and renewed energy having been gravely ill in prior months. Whatever one's view is of the Divine, it is most certainly touched in this moment.
Here's a sampling of the movement, performed by the Stradivari Quartet:
So, if you're around Newark, Delaware on Sunday (March 10th, 3:00 PM, Gore Recital Hall at the University of Delaware), come hear us as we journey together through my inaugural Late Beethoven Quartet performance. We hope to make you fascinated, confounded and moved, too. (but don't be intimidated!)
Posted Wed, 23 Jan 2013 16:26:00 +0000
I confess, I didn’t learn what this was until freshman year of college. I remember a friend saying to me “oh you know when you play a certain piece a lot, and all the decisions you’ve made seem really final, then you play with someone else and you have to make new decisions?”. I was a bit confused because I had innocently thought “you just play a piece like it’s supposed to go.”
In my mind, the great performances I had heard were just artists who “REALLY played it how it’s supposed to go.”
Obviously I had a lot to learn about communicating in a chamber ensemble! In truth, I had been making musical decisions my whole life. Anytime you play music, whether it’s intentional or not, you are making thousands of little decisions about how to play it. Anyone, musician or not who happens to hum a tune they know is making musical decisions. These decisions about how you hear something, and eventually what makes your “voice” unique come from thousands of factors, all affecting your judgement of what seems right for that bit of music.
Some examples of musical aspects we make decisions about are: Where do notes lead? Over a phrase, where do groups of notes lead (that is grow or move into each other), what is their overall shape? How connected are notes? Do they have stronger or more gentle articulation? Timing: do you stay steady? Linger on an important moment, do you have a sense of rushing or moving forward? What kind of sound quality are you trying to produce? A dark tone? Rich and warm tone? Silky or feathery tone? The questions are infinite, but most musicians have strong opinions about all these factors because they hear the piece as a “whole.”
Your decisions might be affected by what you’ve listened to, what you think the spirit of the music is, or what it means to you. It’s truly amazing how differently people can hear things. I’ll never forget a hilarious instance when I borrowed a colleagues part for the Bartok concerto and in a section where I had pencilled in “warm”, she had pencilled in “tortured”. We joke that both markings really meant “use more vibrato.”
If composers tried to mark all these details into the score, the music would be covered in ink and practically illegible. It would also take a lot of the creativity and fun out of interpretation.
I took a wonderful class at the University of Montreal one year called “interpretation” where we listened to various recordings of great artists and literally tried to notate all their musical decisions. We had to blow up the scores to be able to fit all the subtle details in. It was also remarkable to see from this perspective how “plain” the music really is.
Sometimes, the music is downright illogical, or confusing. At the end of the famous 3rdmovement “Heiliger Dankgesang” of Beethoven’s Op. 132 quartet that we will play this coming season, Beethoven writes a series of repeated notes, but ties them together with slur markings. Usually, when you see this marking connecting two notes that are the same, it means there is no separation, that is play it like one long note. However, Beethoven could easily have just written one long note instead of tying together smaller note divisions. Does this mean you are supposed to make tiny separations? Pulse each note division? Perhaps Beethoven wanted the subdivisions of the beat felt more strongly but not emphasized under a long held note? Larry decided to research what other quartets had chosen to do and listened to a myriad of recordings from all different time periods. He notated their solutions on a separate piece of paper and brought them to rehearsal. There were almost as many interpretations as there were quartet recordings! We still have not come to a final decision about how we will play that one important bar, but look forward to lively discussion and experimentation to test ideas and come to a unified musical decision.
Until next time,
"Why We Do It – Reflections on Opening Night”
Posted Wed, 24 Oct 2012 18:50:00 +0000
After our recent concert opening The Arts at Trinity series in Wilmington (DE), my quartet mates and I shared an exchange of messages from several concert-goers that was especially gratifying. It highlighted for me, rather dramatically, and certainly very movingly, “why we do it”.
Why do we do it? Why do we play string quartets?? Well - for the music, for the art, for the process , of course!
But …let me tell you what happened this time.
Larry’s message was from a father who is seeking the best spot for his daughter, a high-school cellist, to attend college as a music major. The father was relating how special it was for his daughter to be there, to talk with Larry afterwards, and to hear “the wonderful music Serafin String Quartet provided”. The gentleman said he drove almost 100 miles to get there will do it again in April (when SSQ will return to close Trinity’s season). “Every mile was worth driving,” the man wrote. How heartwarming for us to connect with this caring and attentive father, and how exciting that we were able to deliver an experience for his daughter, and for him, that they both want to repeat!!
Tim received a message from an adult amateur violinist who plays in the Community Orchestra. Hearing us play the Dohnanyi Piano Quintet triggered a touching reminiscence of her dear, life-long pianist friend, now in elder years and experiencing dementia. Today, her pianist friend can only poke a few notes out here and there, but at the time she “played a pretty mean piano!” This listener was spirited back 25 years, recalling how she and her friend, with some devoted others, read through the Dohnanyi from time to time, Hearing the quintet flooded this listener with memories of reading through the piece with this friend and their happy satisfaction at exploring this wonderful work together. “I treasure those times,” she wrote, “they were some of the most valuable times of my life. It’s what I call feeding the soul.” How gratifying for us to be a conduit for this listener to recall and reconnect with “what matters”.
I also received a message – mine from one of my nearest and dearest friends, who described herself as an “unsophisticated” listener, new to classical music. She shared with us her amazing experience of finding a thrilling and profound connection to her emotions while listening to the Mozart, Beethoven and Dohnanyi – each one evoking in her a different landscape of feelings, images and ideas. It was one of the most “tuned-in” expressions of the connecting to the content of the music that I have heard – and prompted me to assure her that, far from “unsophisticated”, she actually is tapped in to the real essence of the music - and completely “getting it” at the most important level – listening with a sophisticated heart!! For more than 30 years she believed she did not, would not, or could not appreciate classical music. How thrilling for us to be part of her discovery of the varied, deep, and expansive world of classical music and the riches it delivers to the attentive listener!!
These messages spanned 3 generations – and each was dramatic, heartfelt and enthusiastic – reinforcing my confidence in the greatness of the artworks of chamber music that we are so privileged to perform. And, more importantly - it reinforced to me their inherent accessibility and ability to touch any receptive heart! This, I must say, is why we do it!!
A Musical Welcome
Posted Wed, 10 Oct 2012 17:43:00 +0000
Last fall, I made a big life change: moving from Canada to the US indefinitely to join the faculty of the University of Delaware. Luckily, the first people I got to know in my new home were the Serafin String Quartet. Before I was a member, before even beginning to teach at the University of Delaware, my first experience here was preparing for a concert with them when former violist Molly Carr had a conflict. I was immediately drawn into their special world of music-making. Apparently, I was also on trial for the job, and I can assure everyone that if you are going to audition for anything, it's best to be unconscious of the fact. Much more pleasant!
I want to talk a little about the rehearsal process I dove into last August, as I feel that's at the heart of what makes this group so wonderful. Quartet playing is about communication: you are all trying to craft a powerful message to the audience, and as anyone who watched the recent presidential debates can attest, there are thousands of tiny details that affect the impact and the presentation of this message. The way four different people with vastly different backgrounds, perspectives, and talents arrive at a unified concept is fascinating. Firstly, there are the raw materials. Everyone has their own unique way of hearing the piece they are playing together. How they hear their own line, but also how they hear the group’s message can be very different at times. What's amazing is that before any words are even spoken, with sensitive listening, quartet musicians respond to what the others are playing, and thus communicate their intentions. Like good friends or family members who bring out the best in you, quartet mates challenge your ideas. I’m an idealist, believing that though the best product comes from experimentation with many ideas, we can still arrive at a consensus. The curiosity and openness of this group, but moreover the dedication to excellence when musical ideas are formed, is truly inspirational. Right away, the Serafins felt like the best musical friends I could hope for.
I can’t resist taking a second here as I introduce myself to say a word about the viola. Canadians are notoriously poor self-promoters, likewise violists, but I think I can get away with it in this, my first blog-post. For me, the middle voices are the heart, the inner warmth of chamber music. Of course we have our solo moments and, like all instruments in a string quartet, have to play many roles at different times. But the essential role in much of the classical repertoire we play is a contrapuntal inner voice, representing the tenor or alto voice. In the works of great composers (e.g. Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, all on the menu this delicious season!) the inner voices add an amazing dimension. They are often the parts lending subtle harmonic colour to a melody, or providing some rhythmic undercurrent that transforms the meaning of the piece’s main line. In the case of Beethoven’s Harp Quartet, which we will perform October 20th at Trinity Episcopal Church, the viola provides a harrowing counterpart to the first violin’s serene opening melody in the second movement. When I am an audience member and I catch myself emotionally disengaged, I take a moment and listen to the workings of the inner voices. Usually in moments I am a weepy puddle. In fact this technique is not recommended on dates, or any moments where you would prefer to look respectable post-concert. However, if you are seeking an intense, overwhelming classical music experience, the inner voices are where it’s at!
Until next time,
Next Season: Beethoven to Beethoven, and everything in between
Posted Sun, 15 Jul 2012 21:25:00 +0000
So, while it might seem that we simply left our blog on the vine to die, we are very much here, and excited to announce repertoire for our 2012-13 season! Here goes:
We begin with a couple of exciting collage concerts, one for a second annual Beethoven & Brewskies event at the Twin Lakes Brewery in Greenville, Delaware (a private affair - sorry), where we'll give a sampler of works by Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven (and as I type this on my iPhone, it keeps getting mis-typed as "Beerthoven", which I suppose is appropriate!).
On Saturday, September 22, we take our String Quartet Time Machine to the Kennett Flash in Kennett Square, PA, giving a dash through history from Haydn to Higdon (with Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Dvořák, Ravel and Martinů in between). The Flash is a very fun, hip venue, and we're delighted to make our debut there.
This will mark our second season providing bookend concerts for the Arts at Trinity series in Wilmington, with some exciting repertoire and guests. October 20, 2012 (Saturday) will offer a delightful early work of Mozart (the D Major Divertimento), a middle-Beethoven classic (the "Harp" Quartet) and very youthful Dohnanyi (the Op. 1 Piano Quintet - with the fantastic pianist Victor Asuncion). We finish the Trinity season on April 20, 2013, with Puccini's gorgeous Crysanthemi, Mozart's g minor Piano Quartet (with our friend & colleague, the wonderful Julie Nishimura) and the thrilling a minor string quartet of Robert Schumann.
In March, we've got some very exciting university-related activities. At the end of the month, we will be at Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA, for a residency. We will be working with students, giving workshops, and presenting a performance including Haydn's "Sunrise" Quartet and the monumental Beethoven Op. 132 a minor Quartet, on March 23, 2013 (time and exact location TBA).
Earlier in March, we will present our annual concert celebrating our ongoing residency at the University of Delaware. We are delighted and honored to be Quartet-in-Residence again at UD's Department of Music, where we will continue to work with students in chamber music and give on-campus concerts and "informances". Our formal UD concert will be in the lovely Gore Recital Hall on Sunday, March 10, 2013, at 3:00 PM, featuring the Beethoven Op. 132 and the hauntingly beautiful Il Tramonto of Respighi, with the wonderful soprano Noël Archambeault, who serves on the UD voice faculty.
Other concerts will be popping up from time to time, and members of the quartet have interesting individual and joint projects planned, but we'll save all that for another post. Hope to see you at our concerts this coming season!
How Tweet is is
Posted Sat, 25 Feb 2012 22:44:00 +0000
So, earlier this season, we in the quartet were trying to think of interesting ways to present ourselves at our new concert series, called "ClassicAlive!" at Wilmington, Delaware's newly refurbished Queen Theater (run by World Café Live). Kate had put together a wonderful script for our first concert in December (the title of which was "Quartet Time Machine"), but we were trying to think of yet other ways to connect with our audience in this less formal, more intimate setting than an average concert.
Earlier that year, during the Super Bowl halftime show, I had a wonderful time following many people on Twitter who were making fun of the band The Black-Eyed Peas (good band, bad halftime show - still trying to wrap my head around what the heck the box-headed dancers were all about). For some reason, the fun of this popped into my head when we were discussing the Queen Theater concerts, as did a senior recital of one of my students at the University of Delaware, who had her audience tweet about her program. So, I said, "Hey, I could 'live-tweet' the concert while you guys are reading the script!" To my great surprise, my colleagues thought this was a really good idea. To my greater surprise, they seemed to understand what I was talking about.
So, I was off on the concept. As a trial run for the first concert, I decided to cheat a little bit. I mostly pre-wrote my tweets to correspond to where we were in the program, adding extra tidbits like:
While Debussy loved Ravel’s 4tet, Gabriel Fauré, for whom it was written, hated it, called it a failure. Can’t please everybody! #SSQatWCLand
In addition to being a truly wonderful composer, Jennifer #Higdon is also a truly lovely person. Double win for us! #SSQatWCLAnd, some commentary about my fellow Serafins:
I promise not to tweet while Kate and Molly are playing their glorious #Mozart Duo! If you see me doing it, throw some food at me. #SSQatWCLand
No, Kate didn't suddenly get taller. That's Tim sitting in the 1st violin seat. They share that duty - some 4tets do, most don't. #SSQatWCLIf you're unfamiliar with the weird, wacky world of Twitter, it is a site where individuals do what is called "micro-blogging", with individual "tweets" containing no more than 140 characters. The "#" sign, called a hashtag in the Twitterverse, can draw attention to a word, or comment on a tweet (in the above tweets, the hashtag simply labeled the concert).
As this concert went on, I started to feel just a bit more confident to tweet more spontaneously, and added brilliant gems like:
Yep, Kate's socks are pretty cool, indeed. #SSQatWCLPure poetry, huh?
The Twitter experiment was fun for me, and was sort of an exhilarating challenge, making sure I could do this stuff on my iPhone and still get myself ready to focus and play. So, I was ready to try it again for our second concert in February, a Valentine-themed concert we were calling "Romp through Romanticism". Little did I know that the idea would draw the attention of journalist Peter Bothum of the Delaware News Journal, who featured SSQ in a huge article profiling the concert and (more so) the tweeting. Now, with pictures of the quartet, and me with my phone onstage, were all over the paper, the stakes were raised. I needed to tweet like I'd never tweeted before. Okay, not really, but I did feel that I should be at least as active as I was the previous time out.
Some tweets from the Romanticism concert, again clearly inspired genius in 140 characters or less:
Holy cow, that Mendelssohn movement *was* fast. My fingers are almost too tired to tweet! #repetitivestress #justkiddingimfine #SSQatWCL
Fun fact: this Ravel quartet was debuted on Tim's birthday (March 5). But Tim's not 108 years old. #SSQatWCLand, returning to the well:
Not related to Schumann, but Kate is wearing those fabulous socks again! #SSQatWCLThe Twitter response during this concert was amazing, with people at the concert tweeting along with me, and I even got into a couple of Twitter conversations. Luckily, I always was able to get the phone down in time to play! All in all, I had a great time doing it.
So, if you want to come and see me tweet on Sunday, March 11 at 12:00 noon at the Queen Theater (with doors opening at 11:00 for brunch), we'd love to see you. Even if you don't come, you can always see what we're doing during the concert by following us on Twitter: @serafin4tet (you're also welcome to follow yours truly: @larrystomberg). I'll do what I can to be entertaining and informative, and maybe just a bit silly (except after we play the Barber Adagio on that concert - I'll likely be too sad to tweet).
Cheers from the quartet's head "Twit",
The Devil Is In The Details
Posted Fri, 02 Dec 2011 17:42:00 +0000
The process of “study” is a wonderful journey. As familiarity with a subject becomes more intense, its meaning becomes clearer and richer. And as performers work into the details they find the essence of the style, structure and coherence that lies within every great work! I always took that saying “the devil is in the details” to mean that the most challenging part of playing a piece well lies in getting the details to speak and be heard!
I have equated this the experience, on some more simple level, to doing a jigsaw puzzle that replicates a great work of art or a photograph of an intricate scene. When I begin, I am primarily just matching color schemes, or connecting the most obvious and distinctive lines. But, as I get further into the process, I find myself studying the subtle nuances of the subject and getting to know the painting or photograph in great detail. My appreciation for its elements increases and my understanding of it becomes more complete. I see things to which I was initially blind – textures, figures, lines, shades of color.
Studying and mastering a musical work has something in common with this process. As I get to know a work and become more and more familiarized with the details of its elements of construction, it jumps to life at a whole new level! The process of understanding a work more and more in its intricate detail is enormously gratifying!
It is as if time slows down and I can hear the piece with more and more attention to the smallest figures. It feels as if my ears get bigger in the process – equivalent to seeing something through a magnifying glass - and I hear the elements in greater detail and I tune-in more keenly to the turn of a phrase, the articulation, the intonation of chords and scale patterns, and the unique structure and inflection of each motive and line.
Whoever it was who famously said, “the devil is in the details” (and later someone modified to say “God is in the details”), they made a compelling point. I think this is the “artist’s comment” about how attention to the intricacies elevates one’s experience of studying, playing, performing and/or listening to music! The sharper and closer is one’s perception of its elements, the more intimately we “know it”, the more deeply we experience all that it has to offer.
When a teen-ager listens over and over to his favorite song, I am sure it is not with the idea that the song is being “studied”. But I would maintain that it is exactly what is happening – with the result that the more one intently listens, the better one hears! The better one hears, the more one experiences the universe within a single musical selection.
Whether formal and “serious” or casual and for the “hobbyist”, “study” is what leads to a more and more thrilling understanding of a work of music. Familiarity is key to comprehension. So – the moral of the story is: listen often and listen intently - with your ears wide open! And, enjoy the journey to the center of each musical universe!!
HOW DO I LOOK?
Posted Fri, 28 Oct 2011 18:49:00 +0000
As musicians, we often spend 95% of our effort on how we sound. But for the average audience member, a concert consists of both a visual and an audio experience. When this involves a small ensemble looking coordinated is also a challenge.
What you wear says a lot about you. To some people, wearing jeans and a T-shirt to a performance says you do not care about the concert. But to other people it might be a “hip” statement. Pianist Awadagin Pratt often soloed with major symphonies in jeans and a T-shirt (however, he did not do this until after he won the Naumburg Competition). The Kronos Quartet also wears “non-traditional” clothes such as leather jackets and jeans. In the case of Awadagin, his fame at winning a major competition took some (but not all) of the edge off of the criticism of his dress code, and gave him a persona of an “edgy” performer. In the case of the Kronos Quartet, their dress really reflects their choice of programming, which is mainly contemporary music.
Whatever you or your group decides to wear, there are two important things to remember: 1) It needs to look like you care and 2) It needs to be true to the individual and/or the group. I personally despise performing in a tuxedo or even a suit. For me, it adds a barrier between me and the audience that I strive to remove. However, there have been times that I do perform in a suit with my quartet, because as groups there are times we want to portray a very conservative look. At other times we might perform in jeans, because the venue is different and we want to portray a different feeling. But whatever I wear, if I think I look good I will go into a concert with more confidence and security then if I am embarrassed by my dress.
Posted Wed, 12 Oct 2011 13:08:00 +0000
In my last blog I talked about the power of silence. Another powerful tool is listening. Like silence, there are different levels of listening. Think about two people having a conversation. Have you ever been in a conversation with someone and feel like they are really hearing you? Contrast that with someone who is just waiting for you to stop talking so they can say what they want to say. Or talking on the phone with someone and knowing they are typing an e-mail to someone else while “listening” to you.
Music, and especially chamber music, is very similar. If I am sight-reading a piece, I spend most of my effort counting to make sure I am not off rhythmically. While this basically keeps me in the correct spot, obsession with counting can actually make me listen less. Likewise, when I really begin to listen, then it is possible I might miss-count a phrase at first. But the rewards are much greater in the end.
In order to truly listen, you have to have some knowledge of what your partners are doing. Are you with them rhythmically or tonally? What is the function of the chord or rhythm? Are you the most important voice? If not, who is? Going into a rehearsal with all of that knowledge can free you to hear the individual style and playing of the instrumentalist. And then you are truly free to communicate with each other in a meaningful way.
THE POWER OF SILENCE
Posted Tue, 20 Sep 2011 19:03:00 +0000
On September 9-10, Serafin String Quartet held “quartet camp” at the University of Delaware, which was a series of seminars and playing exercises for quartet training. Our new violist, Molly Carr, talked about some of the things she does to prepare for a quartet rehearsal. One of the first things she mentioned was circling all of the tutti rests. I thought this was a fantastic exercise and really got me thinking about the power of silence.
All silence is not the same. The silence after a dissonant forte chord is going to be very different from the silence at the end of a piano phrase in Mozart. One of the most powerful silences I ever heard was with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6. That moment of complete stillness and awe in a hall filled with 2,000 people is something that can never be reproduced on a CD. And the silence before a piece begins is equally important, and can also vary tremendously.
One of the reasons silence is so powerful is it is something both the audience and the performers participate in equally. The performers have to set up the silence well, but the audience has to participate in it fully for it to be truly effective. Silence is always the time that I know if the audience is “with” me or not.
So the next time you are performing a piece, don’t just think about the notes. Think about those moments of silence which are so incredibly powerful.
Truckin' Through the South
Posted Tue, 05 Apr 2011 11:39:00 +0000
Long time, no blog. Well, after a long, crazy couple of months, we're back online, and will be sharing some fun tidbits about our upcoming southern US tour!
We'll be spending a few days in beautiful and bustling Atlanta, Georgia, for two performances at Emory University. Our concert on Friday, April 8, will be introduced by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra maestro and new head of the Aspen Festival and School, Robert Spano. We'll also be playing a children's concert, on Sunday, April 10, featuring the animals Webster the Musical Spider and Ferdinand the Bull, at Emory's Carlos Museum.
From there, we travel to Spartanburg, South Carolina, for a Monday evening concert (April 11) at Wofford College, presenting some meaty repertoire of Dvořák and Beethoven. Then we'll be on the way back home.
So, stay posted, as we'll hope to blog about our travels, with some fun pictures to boot. Okay, off to go pack and put gas in the car...
Larry & SSQ
Quartet Residency at the University of Delaware
Posted Sat, 28 Aug 2010 03:20:00 +0000
Hi everyone, Larry here - long time, no post.
Many of you have likely heard by now about our new Quartet-in-Residence position at the University of Delaware, the school where I also teach as Associate Professor of Cello. We're very excited about the honor and the opportunity (we start Monday!), and I thought I'd share a bit about what we'll be doing.
While some groups take a residency position strictly to have a home base to perform and rehearse, SSQ's aim is to be as important a part of the community for students as we can be. Of course, we'll also be at the UD Music Department as a home base, and will be doing rehearsals there every week and giving some concerts, but we see our function as to help enhance the experience for the music students, particularly the string players.
In addition to rehearsing on our days at UD (most every Monday with some other days sprinkled in throughout the year), we'll be working with student chamber ensembles, presenting "informances" in the Music Department and at other venues on the campus, and collaborating with other faculty. Just a few things in our first two weeks of the residency!:
So, we're starting off with a bang, and are looking forward to even more interaction with the students, faculty and patrons of the entire university. There's a lot planned for the year, and we'll keep you posted.
We're very thankful to the University of Delaware's Department of Music and its chair, Paul Head, who helped facilitate all of this with the generous assistance of an outside donor. SSQ is hopeful that this will be a relationship that can grow and prosper as the years go by.
One concern we have, however, and that I have had to battle with (as a faculty member for 6 years now), is the school's mascot. If you don't know, Delaware is known as the Fightin' Blue Hens (an honorific back in Revolutionary days for someone who was tough and fierce). That's all well and good, but "YouDee", our particular Fightin' Blue Hen mascot, looks like this:
Kate and Tim's Beethoven Sonatas Odyssey!
Posted Wed, 30 Jun 2010 02:23:00 +0000
I can’t help reflecting on our amazing Beethoven experience, having just returned from the culminating week of our Beethoven violin sonatas project. As an off-shoot of Serafin String Quartet’s performance activity, Tim and I presented all ten Beethoven violin/piano sonatas with five different pianists, on three different series in 4 states, between March and June 2010. A Beethoven Odyssey, indeed!
I have wanted to revisit these great works, having played all 10 with my brother, William, on a series in Florida in the late 1990's. I had the idea to do so with my SSQ colleague, Tim, and with a number of pianists. Tim seemed keen to join in on the project, and we ended up being able to present all 10 sonatas on three series (Wilmington, DE; Abington, PA; and at Classicopia Festival in VT and NH). We performed a total of 12 concerts and collaborated with 5 pianists - each interesting and wonderful in their own right! Tim and I each played all 10 sonatas - taking 5 each in the first run, and then switching.
In the final concert in Norwich, New Hampshire, on June 20th, Tim concluded our adventure playing, after intermission, the “Kreutzer Sonata” like a real champion, following my romp through the A Minor (#2) and the “little G Major” (#8) on the first half. I must admit to a tiny tinge of professional jealousy at his stealing the show – but that was quickly and completely overtaken by my collegial pride at his fine playing (and also by my relief that it was not my turn to play the “Kreutzer” in the 90-degree, un-air-conditioned church where the series was held!!). It was so hot and humid that the pianist quickly turned his handkerchief into a dripping washcloth, and up-ended a cup of water (partially onto the keyboard’s octave below “middle C”!!) when he too hastily reached to quench his thirst after the furious first movement.
Aside from this very famous Sonata #9 in A Major (written about by Tolstoy and usually chosen above all other sonatas by every violin virtuoso programming a recital) many of these ten masterworks are little-known, even by violinists, and most are rarely performed. And, as Tim and I discovered – oh, what everyone is missing!!
Our first discovery was that each and every one of the ten sonatas is a masterwork and a gem in the repertoire. The next thing we found out is - they are all tricky and difficult to master!! The relationship of these works to the majesty and intimacy of the 17 string quartets is resonating with me profoundly as Serafin Quartet starts work on the String Quartets Op. 18#2 and Op. 132 - both of which SSQ will perform in the 2010-11 season. I feel that, due to this amazing sonatas project, I have a deepend understanding and stylistic conviction about Beethoven and his chamber music. It is such incredible art that it never grows old or dull. There is always more to discover - and I look forward to sharing that with my quartet colleagues and the audiences next season!
The Recording – A Reminiscence
Posted Mon, 14 Jun 2010 04:16:00 +0000
With our first commercial CD now out and available, and with the recording of the CD falling exactly one year ago this week, it seems a good time to look back at the crazy, memorable and chilly adventure of the process.
We were very excited to have gotten our recording contract with Centaur Records, and were all geared up to go for the recording (music by Still, Dvořák, Barber and Gershwin). Through Larry’s position at the University of Delaware, we lined up the lovely new Gore Recital Hall at UD’s Center for the Arts for a couple of weeks in June, a nice quiet time on campus after school was out of session. We were also very happy to get the wonderful engineer/producer Andreas Meyer to work with us. Andreas really knows his craft, has great ears and a wonderfully calm demeanor in the recording process, and he’s just a great guy. We knew our repertoire well, having performed it a good deal leading up to the sessions, so all in all, it was the best we had ever felt going into a recording project.
Enter the unexpected circumstances. A week or two before the first recording session was to begin, Larry received an email warning that the university’s annual campus-wide “steam shutdown” would be happening during our first week in the hall. They mentioned “oh, the air conditioning stops operating normally” and that the temperature/climate would be “a little cool and clammy”. Armed with long-sleeved shirts, if needed, we ventured to the hall that first morning, June 8th. Temperature in the low-mid 60s. We were starting with the Barber Quartet – you know, the one with the famous Adagio, really slow, needing all sorts of extra bow control, vibrato control, etc., things that are a little hard to come by with temperatures in the low-mid 60s. Along with this, Kate was starting to suffer from a nasty cold, with a cough starting to creep in. Luckily, Kate is never without cough drops, so she was covered for that part of the problem.
We gave it a good old college try, and managed to get through that first day (walking outside to lunch, in the mid 80s weather of June in Delaware, felt wonderful!). For Day 2, we figured we could make it through some more Barber and get started with Dvořák “American”, and had sweatshirts to cope. The sweatshirts were nice, but the few-degrees-cooler temperatures in the hall were not. On top of this, Kate’s cold and cough were a little worse – she was now armed with a thermos of tea as well as the cough drops. Nevertheless, we finished up Barber and got some good headway in the Dvořák. And lunch, again, was very nice (and warm).
Day three – temperatures had stabilized around 60, maybe 59. Larry brought a space heater and a couple of heating pads, Kate still had her cold remedies, and if memory serves correctly, icicles were forming on Ana’s viola. We did more Dvořák this day, though it is challenging to play this ebullient, folksy music when you can’t feel your fingers. Lunch – superb (and warm).
At this point, we broke for the week, mostly to thaw, but also to give our heads a rest going into three days the next week. Andreas was wonderful in the recording sessions to this point, and started to get some preliminary edits ready to listen to during our down time. The steam shutdown was only a week long, so we were excited to return Monday to gloriously normal temperatures, and hopefully improvement in Kate’s cold.
Day 4 (Monday, June 15) - Temperature in the Hall: 55 degrees. They were just getting buildings back on line for normal AC, and hadn’t gotten to the Center for the Arts yet. Thanks to a quick call from Larry’s colleague at UD, Tamara, they got things going; however, heating up a big concert hall takes a number of hours. So, we all piled backstage, where Andreas’ equipment was, and decided on some edits for the Dvořák. Then lunch – once again, warm. After lunch, temps were a little better, so we launched into the William Grant Still Panamanian Dances.
Days 5 and 6 were finally in a normal climate, and it seemed that Kate was a little bit better. We finished the Still, recorded the Gershwin Lullaby the morning of Day 6, and then spent some time re-recording the Barber Adagio, now that we could use vibrato without fear of a frozen finger snapping in two.
Normal view of Gore Recital Hall
View of Gore Hall June 8, 9, 10, 15, 2009
We survived the frozen tundra of Gore Hall, with a couple of caveats. All of the wonderful lunches in downtown Newark, DE, caused Tim and Larry to fret over how much weight they had put on in two weeks. This overindulgence only continued a couple of weeks later when the quartet went down to North Carolina for a week teaching and playing at the NC Suzuki Institute (at our favorite restaurant in the south, Atavola in Greenville). The Barber was also a casualty of the temperatures; while we had some good stuff for the CD, we were compelled to go back in early September to re-record, with much happier results.
Despite the drama and unexpected turmoil, the recording session was a wonderful experience of growth for the Serafins, and we are very happy with the product. Don’t forget to order yourself a copy!
The Voice of the Viola in a String Quartet
Posted Thu, 27 May 2010 04:01:00 +0000
Hello. This is Ana, the most technologically and cyberspacially challenged member of the Serafin Quartet. I guess that would explain my entry being the very last.
Since my colleagues have shared the macroscopic aspects of string quartets, I would like to dwell upon the individual perception of being in a string quartet. Our violinist, Tim, had touched upon the subject with some interesting points that are endemic to all fine chamber groups including adjustment to the style of playing. Due to historically established practice of assigning more or less harmonic material to the viola part in chamber and orchestral scores, adjusting stylistically to other instrumentalists within the group is something that is more or less intuitive to a violist. What will a violist do to please and appease the complex canvass of an unveiling sonic terrain dominated by the violins and a cello? Just about anything! The docile nature of a viola part is the leading cause of agoraphobia among the violists :-)
With jokes aside, I must say that the repertoire we choose has plenty of leading viola material. Equal thematic distribution within a chamber group is bound to pose few obstacles, most of which including the stylistic preferences or vignetting of phrases could be resolve with some (or a lot) of work. Yet, there is a one very crucial aspect that, if being overlooked, could have a significant negative impact on a performance. It is known as the group timbre.
Timbre of stringed instruments of the violin family, which includes violins, violas and cellos, is determined by many factors such as type and age of wood, correlation of the thicknesses of the top and back plates that culminate in an acoustic "aftertaste" characteristic of all string instruments. Needless to say that achieving a conformity in timbre that is so need during transitional passages in music is nearly impossible. However, with the right tools a string quartet can create a perfect symmetry in sound.
As a member of the Serafin Quartet, I am very fortunate to play on a fine mid-18th century viola made by Carlo Antonio Testore in Milan, Italy and loaned to the quartet by Dr. William J. Stegeman. The viola is a perfect match to a violin played by Tim also made by the same maker as well as the Testore school cello played by Larry. It is worth noting that Kate's instrument, created by the highly regarded Venitian maker Santo Serafin during earlier period is a perfect compliment to the overall sonority of the group. When put together, the instruments create a true surround sound effect, indulging the listener with the most glorifying overtones.
Now that I've shared with you one of our biggest secrets, I guess there is no more excuse for us to be anything but the best!
String Quartet – A Fragile Ecosystem
Posted Tue, 11 May 2010 02:33:00 +0000
Hi Y’all – here are some Blog notes from Kate.
The fragile ecosystem of the “string quartet” has often been described in joking terms – (“a bad marriage between four people”, for example, or: “What’s the difference between a string quartet and a pizza? – a pizza can feed a family of four”). Quartets don’t generate lavish incomes, and the dynamics of interacting can challenge even the most cooperative among us! News of the latest “musical chairs” rotations in quartets around the world never surprises me.
The cooperative dependence of string quartet life goes very deep. “Change one, you change the whole” is profoundly lived out in string quartet life.
Serafin String Quartet was founded in 2001, and has enjoyed hard-won stability in personnel since 2007 when Ana joined us. SSQ has endured through changes – starting with the sudden and unexpected loss of founding violist, Tony Simmons, in 2005, when he was killed in a car crash at the age of 38. In the face of this tragedy, we “changed one” and later found that the group had changed entirely. SSQ has shown resilience and sustained its presence when others would have long ago sounded their last chords.
What allows or inspires one ensemble to continue when others would stop? Not sure- but in the case of SSQ, our esprit, purpose and ability to make our work “about the music” have certainly contributed. And, most serious quartet players I know are pretty darn persistent.
Serafin String Quartet consciously recognizes our professional inter-dependence in a number of ways:
First, we are cognizant, individually, of the importance of “being there” and that the group cannot be what it is if one of us is not there. Rehearsals and concerts are serious commitments. Sure, we can play the concert somehow, and cover the engagement – but without the four of us there, we are not really SSQ – not reflecting the hours of rehearsal, study, thought and practice that go into crafting the right style, balance, tone, color, etc that we have decided upon, together, for each work. So, we share the recognition of, and respect for, our personal responsibility to the group and the other members – for the “greater good”.
Secondly, we operate like a business in specific ways. We have a letter of agreement between the four of us, stating the key elements of our commitments to one another and to the entity. And we have financial policies and practices that articulate how we will manage our expenses and pay-outs to the members of the group. We follow a budget and project our expenses and income.
Third, we meet periodically and discuss our expectations, goals, objectives, projects, finances, and philosophy. And we strive, not perfectly, but pretty well, to keep the discussions open amongst the four of us and keep “parking lot” conversation to a minimum – certainly about any issues related to the Quartet.
Finally, we like each other (!) and respect each others’ musicianship and artistic accomplishment. We have a good time together most of the time – laugh a lot, work hard, and do our best to accommodate each others’ idiosyncrasies and shortcomings, without compromising what we are striving to achieve as an ensemble. We take a lot of satisfaction in sharing the Quartet experience, and our lives.
Here we are, enjoying each others'company, and a few beverages.
I have a pillow in my house that a friend gave me – it says “chamber musicians play well with others!”
Certainly – that is one of the cardinal rules of healthy ensemble life! For me, life in SSQ is a labor of love that yields artistic fulfillment. It ain’t always easy, but it sure is worth it!
Quartet Dynamics - the power, and lack thereof, of 25%
Posted Wed, 05 May 2010 20:53:00 +0000
Hi Everyone; Tim here.
One of the most fascinating things I have discovered in my quartet journey is how a group can take on a certain dynamic, sound, and style of its own. Being 25% of a group is an interesting percentage; large enough to have real influence but not enough to dominate. The dynamics of a quartet are very much like the dynamics of a family. The longer the group has been together the more complex those dynamics can become. I often find myself adjusting my sound or style to match what I feel the quartet style is. On the other hand, there are many things I have learned in quartet playing that has influenced other areas of my musical preparation. This is especially true when I am conducting an orchestra. I try and encourage the orchestra to think as a large ensemble, which includes having a good knowledge of the score, knowing which parts are dominate at any given time, and what to listen for to have passages be exactly together.
A couple years ago we had the pleasure of performing the Gade octet with the Vega Quartet based in Atlanta. What was particularly interesting to me was to see how another quartet worked and interacted with each other. It was almost like two entities coming together instead of eight.
I think another good analogy of quartet playing as a group would be individualism vs. nationalism. While every individual is different, we all come from specific cultures that have molded who we are. Germany, as a whole, brings up a very different image than Italy, even though the two countries are quite close geographically. In the same way, the Budapest String Quartet
is going to sound very different than the Tokyo String Quartet.
And both went through major developments and changes during their existence. I personally enjoy hearing the differences more than the similarities. One of the major drawbacks of widespread recordings is that it is too easy to imitate someone else and not produce something that is our own. Perhaps that will be the subject of my next blog post….
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