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….
"Blog Boy" and the Anatomy of an Emerging Ensemble
Posted Sun, 25 Apr 2010 00:08:00 +0000
Hi everyone – this is Larry Stomberg, cellist of SSQ. I got to go first with a blog posting, with the idea that you’ll hear from each of us, one week at a time, or more often as we feel moved to post. Blogging is new to my colleagues, but I have a history of it, having been involved in a lot of blogging a few years back for a political campaign (to be left unnamed to protect the innocent, or at least me); I earned the name “Blog Boy” among those friends, and am happy to reclaim the moniker in the quartet (except that it gives Kate, Tim and Ana yet another way to make fun of me!). The quartet is actually hitting a lot of the social media tools. We’ve got a Facebook Fan Page, and so far, Tim, Kate and I have Twitter accounts – come be our followers!
Serafin Quartet has changed a lot in my years in the ensemble. I became cellist of the group in the spring of 2006, following Carrie Ellman, a delightful colleague and fine cellist. In that time, we have continued to establish ourselves as what we would call an emerging ensemble. We haven’t signed that record deal with Deutsche Grammaphon yet, but we’re not in the very earliest stages of our career as a quartet, either. I feel fortunate to be in a quartet with seasoned players who bring fantastic chamber music backgrounds and a wealth of other music and life experience. As someone who is, um, no longer in his twenties, I appreciate where we are in our lives as quartet members, having established our careers as performers, teachers and even administrators.
So far, in my four years with SSQ, we’ve enjoyed two well-received concerts at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall (and the quartet played a couple of times there before my tenure), have played in a number of nice venues around the country (though we’re always looking to get out a little more), have produced two demo recordings, and are close to the release of our first commercial disc, on Centaur Records. Along with this growth in professional activity, our artistic vision has changed and evolved, too. The more an ensemble gets to know itself/each other, the more it’s capable of, and the higher a standard it holds itself to. We get closer all the time to being able to “read each other’s minds”, working toward that goal of knowing what we want from the music and getting it in efficient, even unspoken ways. We still talk plenty, though, particularly during lunch break - that tends to be about things like local gossip, what movies we’ve seen, and what Ana thinks about how Beyoncé looked at the Grammy Awards.
The challenge of holding ourselves to this ever-higher standard is challenging and occasionally tiring, but pretty exhilarating too. And we feel on the cusp of some big things. In addition to the Centaur disc, there’s the upcoming London debut (at St. John’s Smith Square), a still-forming tour of the southeastern U.S. in Spring 2011, and an exciting project with 2010 Grammy and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, performing and recording a number of her chamber works. There’s another big thing or two in our future, but we’ll let you know as they become official.
The biggest challenge, aside from trying to play better all the time as individuals and a quartet, is each of us balancing our other professional and personal obligations. We’ve all got our life partners to whom we need to be sensitive (and I’ve got three kids, to boot!), and each of us has other demanding work schedules. As you might know, Kate is the President and CEO of the Music School of Delaware, the major community music school in the state, Tim is a violin professor and chair of the String Area at Lehigh University, Ana is a busy freelance violist and teacher and has just finished her doctoral degree at Temple University, and I am the cello professor, string chamber music director and Graduate Coordinator in the music department at the University of Delaware. I got tired just typing all of that. With all this, we generally just meet once a week for an intensive rehearsal session, with some extra rehearsals centered around concerts, tours and recording sessions. Would we like to do more? Sure, but given our individual circumstances, we’re making it work pretty well.
So, there’s our “anatomy”. Luckily, we also happen to like each other a lot and consider ourselves good friends. We’ll see how that holds up as we revisit Bartók’s 4th Quartet and Beethoven Op. 132 for the coming season!
Posted Tue, 20 Apr 2010 14:08:00 +0000
Welcome to the Serafin String Quartet's blog! Follow the Serafin’s here and learn more about the release of their first disc by Centaur Records in spring 2010 and their London Debut concert at St. John’s – Smith Square, London, UK on September 25, 2010. http://www.serafinquartet.org/index.asp
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