Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Larry's Weill Hall history with SSQ - a stormy relationship, and a stiff drink

This March, a couple weeks after we've left the stage of Weill Hall, I will be celebrating ten years as cellist of the Serafin String Quartet. A decade in an ensemble is notable in itself, but I find a return to Carnegie Hall at around the same time to be a particularly fitting event, and one that brings back wonderful, if harrowing, memories of my first two appearances in Weill Hall as a member of SSQ.

When I read with the quartet to auditIon in late March of 2006, I was delighted to be offered the position. What seemed a little less delightful, in the same phone conversation in which I was being offered the job, was the following conversation:

KATE: So, we'd like you to join us as a member of SSQ. 
ME: Wow! That's fantastic! 
KATE: And, we were wondering if you'd be able to finish the current season with us instead of waiting until next season. 
ME, small lump forming in throat: Well, sure, I think so. What all is left? 
KATE, after listing a few concerts: And then, on May 7th, we're playing Weill Hall.  
ME, lump growing bigger: Um, what's on the program? 
KATE: Mozart K. 575 [known as one of the "cello" quartets], Bartók 3, Ravel Quartet, and this [really hard] world premiere. 
ME: [complete, lump-throated silence]

So, in about a month, I prepared this really hard program with my new SSQ mates, with just a few preparatory concerts along the way. Now, I had played at Weill Hall before - I did my New York recital debut there in 1999. But for that concert, there was a lot of lead time, and, you know, time to rehearse and practice. Needless to say, this new experience was trial by fire, particularly when that Mozart quartet was first on the program. I have been fortunate to have played a lot of concerts in my life, including the opportunities to perform major concertos home and abroad, and recitals in major arts centers like London and Vienna, not to mention that NYC debut years ago, but I have never felt as nervous as I did walking out on stage with the quartet to start the concert with Mozart K. 575 in May of 2006. Luckily, all went well, we got a pretty good review, and I had a stiff drink after the concert.

My second appearance at Weill Hall with the quartet, while not as nerve-wracking as the first, had its own hilarity. As I usually do when I play in New York (especially when I have an afternoon concert like this one was), I went up the day before to stay with old friends who live downtown in Manhattan. This time, I was able to go with my family (it is fortunately a very big apartment my friends have!), which I thought would be wonderful. I didn't bank on my son and my friend's son deciding to stay up and wander around the apartment until after 1:00 AM, somehow making more noise whispering and shuffling around than they would have just talking normally, or perhaps even shouting and stomping, it seemed. I figured "Okay, 1:00 AM, I'll still get decent sleep." Then 2:00 hit, and the bar across the street closed. Under normal circumstances, I might have been amused by the profanity-laced, many-decibeled banter of the well-watered now-ex patrons out on the street. But with sleep becoming a desperately precious commodity, I found myself more frantic than amused. Then 3:00, or 4:00, or something like that (it was a bit of a blur at this point) hit, and the NY Fire Department, apparently having been called by someone in the apartment building, did what the fire department does in a city - they kept ringing apartments until someone would let them in. Having almost settled down from the reveling drinkers, the sudden and quite loud buzz of the apartment intercom system jarred me into unrecoverable consciousness. I think I did finally catch an hour of sleep or a little more, and found myself dozing backstage shortly before the concert, but it made the performance more of a struggle than it otherwise would have been. But, like the first time, the concert went pretty well, we got a decent review, and I had another post-concert stiff drink.

At least in terms of external weirdness, I'm hoping the third time at Weill Hall with SSQ will be the charm. It is always such a treat to play in this amazing space, with my wonderful colleagues, that I'll take it even if all sorts of crazy stuff happens before. And there's always that stiff drink after the concert, if necessary.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Esme on SSQ's NY premieres of two Julia Adolphe Quartets

Julia Adolphe
I first came in contact with Julia Adolphe's music on a road trip to play at the Pikes Falls Music Festival in Vermont.  My drivers were Evan Soloman and Sarah D'Angelo, a wonderful couple, artistic team, and entrepreneurial force.  They are the co-founders of INSCAPE chamber ensemble, a Grammy-nominated group that performs all over America.  They also established a summer residency at Pikes Falls, where I've been lucky enough to play with them these past two years.  We were all listening to a first edit of their new CD "American Aggregate", which would soon be released.  Evan and Sarah, who had just come out of the recording studio, were obsessively picking out little details and assessing the cuts with a critical ear.  Meanwhile, I was relaxing in the backseat, simply curious about all the new compositional voices I was hearing.  Julia's piece came on, and I was immediately entranced.  The piece "Wordless Creatures" created a sensation that I now associate with Julia's music of constant growth.  It is a kind of story-telling--full of churning motion and development.  There are identifiable themes and gestures, but the music never feels steady; rather, it is in constant evolution.  Whether slow or fast, her inventiveness is in direct dialogue with my curiosity.
I recently visited a friend who nervously read aloud a mystery she had written full of twists and turns.  We discussed at length how, when sculpting a plot, the author must remain sensitive to what the reader does or does not know.  Pacing the revelation of information so that the story is constantly stimulating, intriguing yet natural requires incredible virtuosity. I returned from this visit to rehearse and realized that Julia's music possesses this gift and only grows more interesting as we delve deeper into our interpretive process.

I had the fortune to perform "Veil of Leaves" that same summer in Pikes Falls. Sometimes I hunger for music to begin from absolute stillness, from some sort of primal origin, which "Veil of Leaves" does.  In this work, the opening four-voice unison is our point of departure, from which the sounds seem to split off from each other, like shards of refracted light radiating away from a center. The initial whole dissolves into a miniature in the form of little rhythmic motives that each instrument plays with a special technique called artificial harmonics.  We lightly place our fingers on the strings, creating a much higher sound with a windy, whistling quality to it.  Complexity and an almost raucous chaos ensues when these atoms of the theme are set free to clash and crash against each other in the middle section before culminating in a powerful climax.

In her work "Between the Accidental", the music begins with far more energy and agitation, through the use of a myriad of dissonant sonorities.  Still, I feel this constant sense of diffusion and growth, in which the musical narrative constantly defies expectation, turning and expanding from the unified "once upon a time" of 16th notes that opens the work.

Julia's music challenges all our expressive and technical faculties, but it is so rewarding.  Like a great novel in which you already know the ending but forget how the hero might get there, her lines transport us into their story.  We can't wait to share these new pieces with you at upcoming concerts including Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall in NYC on March 14.

-Esme Allen-Creighton

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue!

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  

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Discovery and Revisiting: Forty Years of Chamber Music

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
July  2015

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Aaaand we're back!

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.
We made a fun group effort out of reading an early Schubert quartet last Thursday.

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.
Twas a beautiful sunny day in Philly for our concert - Larry had to work hard to not get distracted by all the joggers and cyclists going by the WCL window during the performance!

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!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Relax, refresh, and reload

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!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Home Sweet Home

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.
An outside view of Trinity Episcopal, beautiful old style
nestled in a modern downtown.

Trinity from the inside - gorgeous visually
and acoustically.

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!


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Misadventures of a Traveling String Quartet

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:
This isn't my cello, but slightly overanxious protection such as this is common on a few international carriers.

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.


Monday, July 1, 2013

The Magic of Outreach Concerts

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,

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Intersections – Creator Meets Interpreter

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!

--Kate Ransom