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July 16, 2010

Classical Violinist/Fiddler to Play at Cape Cod Festival Concert

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Those of us who frequent Cape Cod have long been grateful for the presence of the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival, which brings first-class artists to our summer haunts. Currently under the artistic leadership of pianist Jon Nakamatsu and clarinetist Jon Manasse, this organization appears to be flourishing. Among the concerts this summer is one in Provincetown on Monday, August 9, 2010, (and again on Thursday, August, 12 at the Dennis Union Church) by the Fry Street String Quartet. I am looking forward to this concert not just for the program (see below) but also because I have heard this young quartet mature and gel over the past several years into a distinct musical presence.

The group was organized in Chicago where the address of their first practice venue gave the quartet its name; since 2002 they have been in residence at the Caine School for the Arts at Utah State University in Logan. However, they have local roots, and even roots in the Cape. First violinist William Fedkenheuer is familiar to Bostonians from his tenure as second violin with the Borromeo Quartet, and the Fry Street Quartet has over the past two years made pilgrimages to Wellfleet on the Cape to have coaching with celebrated cellist Bernard Greenhouse. I spoke with Fedkenheuer, a native of Calgary and a former Canadian fiddling champion, about the upcoming concert.

Boston Musical Intelligencer: You were a fiddling champion in Canada; how does that relate to your career as a classical musician?

William Fedkenheuer: I began the violin at age four and was not as excited about the instrument as most loving parents would hope! However, I had a very special teacher who started me on fiddle tunes, and this turned into one of the greatest gifts I’ve received as a violinist. I loved fiddling, and so a deal was struck that I could fiddle as long as I wanted, but the classical building and technical exercises had to be completed first.

<p>Fry Street Quartet (stock photo)</p>

Fry Street Quartet with William Fedkenheuer on left (stock photo)

Fiddling gave me so much as a young musician; foremost it gave me the experience of performing — stressing the importance of having fun on stage, and being who you are. I performed and travelled around the world, sparking my interest in both activities, and I was also meeting and engaging people from all walks of life. By the time I was 15, classical music started to gain more traction, and I continued to invest more time and energy in my studies. All of the hours building to that moment began to come together, and, combined with a pivotal string quartet experience under the tutelage of Paul Katz, my fate was sealed!

I still carry around hundreds of fiddle tunes in my head and am currently in the process of bringing some of them to the quartet with arrangements I’ve done myself. It’s quite a role reversal, taking the techniques I’ve learned from classical music and applying them now to fiddle tunes, but it brings back so many memories and allows me to share something I love with the audiences we now have the opportunity to play for.

BMInt: Your previous gig was as second violin in the Borromeo Quartet. How do the jobs of the first and second violinists in a quartet differ?

WF: It’s a fascinating difference that only a handful of violinists in professional string quartets experience, and I feel very privileged to part of that group. Of course, the roles are much more diverse and complex than what we have time to explain here, but in short the difference may not be what most people expect!

I found myself as second violinist extremely busy ‘fixing’ things like intonation, timing, blending, etc… The part is usually doubling (in harmony or unison) another instrument in the quartet and this creates the ability to feel the pulse of the quartet and to mold the quartet to where the theme is leading. As a first violinist, you are often the bearer of that theme, although it is the quartet that opens and closes different window to its possibilities. The role itself is to present the theme in such a way that it both follows what has been suggested, but in itself suggests to the quartet where it would be best to go next, although the ultimate decision often lies within another part in the quartet. In the end, a first violinist has to be happy to go absolutely anywhere with the theme, knowing that the entire quartet is supporting wherever this journey leads.

BMInt.: Who are your string quartet “heroes”?

W.F.: There are so many possibilities to list here, as with each composer, piece, and sometimes movements, different quartets make the ‘hero’ list! Every quartet that has been fortunate enough to have a career has a special essence that has set them apart. Two that stand out in my experiences are the Cleveland and Amadeus Quartets. I have been greatly influenced over the years by the playing and teaching of the Cleveland Quartet, having had opportunities to both study and perform with many of the members. And, a pivotal experience for me was hearing the Amadeus Quartet perform a Haydn Quartet that stopped life in its tracks and steered my passion towards this life in string quartets. I have heroes that include all of the great string quartets, too many to name! A few other favorites include the Vegh, Budapest and Tokyo quartets.

BMInt: You have a history in Wellfleet, where the quartet has had coaching sessions with Bernard Greenhouse. What was that like?

W.F.: Our sessions have always created pivotal changes within the quartet that can only come from spending time with Mr. Greenhouse. He is the one of the few bearers of a way of feeling and playing music that was passed directly from Casals to him, and which he now shares with us. He has this ability to grant permission for each of us to be who we are as artists, to embrace what the music is asking us to do, and then to share that with an audience and bring them to places that neither artist nor audience member could have dreamed on their own.  Each moment with him is a special treasure for the quartet and we are all looking forward to having time with him in August.

BMInt: It is a bit of a surprise to see a string trio on the program of a string quartet. How did that happen?

W.F.: There were two major ideas behind the decision to program the Dohnanyi Serenade for our summer season. The first came from the fact that my wife and I welcomed our first son, Max, into the world on February 15th, 2010. In our planning for this summer, we knew that none of us could predict what this would be like for my family, as well as for the family of the quartet. The string trio idea formed as a way of creating a small amount of space for me to keep up with the demands of both a professional string quartet and a newborn son!

The second came from wanting to strengthen and stretch the relationships between the other three players in the quartet. We each strive to have different experiences (as soloists and/or other performances) outside of the quartet to keep pushing ourselves and our colleagues in the continuous exploration that is a string quartet. With the trio, each instrument adapts its role to make up for the ‘missing’ part, and in doing so the players have to explore further the decisions they’ve made in their roles as members of the quartet. For me, it has created another level of understanding of how the quartet works, both seeing and hearing the trio without me involved brings alive different voices that we are now trying to integrate into the quartet. It’s been fascinating to see how each of us has changed and how it’s developing the quartet even further. Besides all of this, the Dohnanyi is a fantastic composition that we wanted to share with our audiences, and its balance between the Beethoven and the Mendelssohn creates an exciting musical journey for the program.

The Fry Street Quartet: William Fedkenheuer and Rebecca McFaul, violins; Bradley Ottesen, viola; Anne Francis, cello; Provincetown Art Association and Museum, Provincetown, Monday, August 9, 2010, 8 PM; and again at the Dennis Union Church, Dennis, on Thursday, August 12, 2010, 8 P.M.. Music of Beethoven (Op 18 No 3), Dohnanyi, (Serenade for String Trio Op 10), and Mendelssohn (F minor Op 80). For tickets call the box office at 508-247-9400 or visit the website here.

Jeffrey S. Berman is Professor of Medicine at Boston University. He is also a clarinetist in the Longwood Symphony Orchestra and a member of several music boards in the Boston area.

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