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