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….