Friday, August 27, 2010

Quartet Residency at the University of Delaware

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!:
  1. We'll be hearing orchestra and chamber music auditions this coming Monday, to help place students in chamber groups that will hopefully thrive.
  2. On September 10th, during the Department's General Student Recital (a weekly Music Student Convocation), we'll formally introduce ourselves to the student body, performing some of the repertoire from our upcoming season, including a movement of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with wonderful clarinetist and UD faculty member Marianne Gythfeldt.
  3. On September 13th and 15th, we'll be giving string sectionals to the students in the UD Symphony Orchestra.
  4. Also on the 15th, we'll be presenting the inaugural lunchtime concert for a series at UD's Institute for Global Studies, in a lovely little building that was built before 1775!
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:

We're not sure quite how to come to grips with this.


Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Kate and Tim's Beethoven Sonatas Odyssey!

by Kate

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!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

The Recording – A Reminiscence

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!


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Voice of the Viola in a String Quartet

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!

Monday, May 10, 2010

String Quartet – A Fragile Ecosystem

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!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Quartet Dynamics - the power, and lack thereof, of 25%

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….

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"Blog Boy" and the Anatomy of an Emerging Ensemble

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!


Tuesday, April 20, 2010


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.