Rockport has been a coastal summer destination for more than a century, the more so for music aficionados since the advent of the Rockport Chamber Music Festival in 1981. And for the last five years the warm and handsome Shalin Liu Center has beckoned classical music lovers year-round. Saturday night’s appearance by the Brentano Quartet gives us another reason to dig out our cars and exercise our ears. The promising program of this top foursome (the sumptuous voice of the unconvincingly coached onscreen foursome in the 2012 movie A Late Quartet) features Charpentier’s Suite in D Minor, Debussy’s String Quartet, and Brahms’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 67.
Artistic Director David Deveau had some questions for violist Mark Steinberg:
DD: Was there a single event or competition that propelled Brentano into the top tier of today’s quartets?
MS: We were very fortunate in being given some opportunities to play early on by people who knew us as individuals and had faith that we might be able to be a good group. The chamber music world seems very much driven by word of mouth and we had the good luck that some people saw something in what we brought to the music and told their friends. We have gotten nice awards and such, but I think the trust between lovers of chamber music accounts for most of what we’ve been able to do.
Your repertoire is remarkably wide, from far back in time to music written today. What inspired you to go back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods and transcribe that era’s music for quartet? Or have the transcriptions largely been done for you by your favorite contemporary composers, like Charles Wuorinen?
Envy. I know it seems ridiculous for a quartet player, with our astonishingly vast and incredibly great repertoire, to be envious of anyone else that way. But we’re greedy. The music that pre-dates the string quartet is so rich and so touching that we just wanted to get our hands on it. And a consort of viols, or even a vocal group, shares a certain aesthetic with the string quartet, that of a group who can blend seamlessly but also offer identity to each individual strand of the music. Because of this we feel that the borrowing we do has a chance of working well. We’ve arranged some music ourselves, had some wonderful composers arrange for us, and also found some music that we could play without any arrangement necessary.
When playing such early music in transcription, how do you vary your sound and style?
To a certain extent we are informed by how we would play on period instruments, meaning a certain restraint and care in the use of vibrato, a conception of rhetoric closely allied with speech, an interest in underlying skeletal dance rhythms, and so on. When we play vocal music we study the words and make decisions about note grouping based on the text and decisions about articulation based on the sounds of initial consonants, etc. All the ways in which we have some knowledge about playing in earlier times influence us, but in the end there is no difference with later music, in that we just try to bring the music forth with clarity and empathy to the best of our ability.
What attracts you to the high-modernist style of a composer like Wuorinen? To the completely different aesthetic of Veejay Iyer, now in residence at Harvard?
We’ve had a long and inspiring connection with Charles Wuorinen, and we love his music for the absolute lucidity of its gestures, the vibrancy of the counterpoint, the sense of being inside a mind of immense intelligence utterly at ease in the language of tones. There is both great beauty and great wit, and often the sense of being immersed in an absolutely scintillating conversation. It is not music to rest to, but rather music to truly awaken the mind and the spirit. Vijay Iyer is a similarly brilliant artist, who lives in a different world, one we have been privileged and thrilled to be a part of. Vijay has a stunning imagination and ear, a thrillingly fresh and colorful sense of harmony and texture, and an inspiring immediacy in his musicmaking. We have learned a lot from the opportunity to play with him in the piano quintet he wrote to play with us (Time, Place, Action). It has brought new challenges to us in terms of improvisation and real-time decisionmaking on a different scale from what we are used to. We love making music with him.
Does the quartet generally enjoy the recording process, or prefer playing live concerts?
Recording is a challenge we are still working on in terms of comfort and being ourselves. While we are proud of some of the work we have done recording all of the late Beethoven quartets as well as other works, including some new pieces we are honored to have made available for people to hear, recording feels less natural to us than connecting with an audience. The microphones seem so brutally judgmental! We’re sure there are audience members like that, too, but we hope we can connect with our listeners in the moment through the energy and love we bring to what we do and not get scolded for the occasional less than perfectly in-tune note. Recently we tried live recording for the first time, performing the Schubert Cello Quintet three times in concert in the same hall on three consecutive days. The recording will be edited together from those concerts. We are very hopeful that the result will capture the excitement, danger and freshness of the concert experience.
Brentano has recently been names Quartet-in-Residence at Yale University’s School of Music. After many years at Princeton, how is this new residency different for you?
We completely loved being at Princeton for 15 years (five years teaching there before we had an official residency) and are excited by this new chapter at Yale. The main difference is that at Yale we are working in the graduate school of music, meaning our students are on the cusp of (or already starting) a professional career as performers. There is a different flavor of intensity that comes from that. Also, starting next year we will invite a young string quartet to Yale that we will mentor and support, which is a wonderful opportunity for us to have some input in the development of an accomplished group at a crucial point in their evolution.
What projects, concerts or commissions are on the Brentano’s horizon?
We are in the midst of a collaboration with the gorgeous singer Joyce DiDonato, which has been a thrill for us, and are planning a longterm collaboration with the deeply artistic pianist Jonathan Biss. We are planning a big project based on the Bach Art of Fugue featuring a moving sculpture by the brilliant artist Gabriel Calatrava and a dramatic scene in the form of a fugue by the sensational playwright Itamar Moses; this will take place next season in New York at the 92nd St. Y. Stephen Hartke, who wrote his first quartet for us, is writing a second for us and we are deeply honored and excited. Next season will also feature the premiere of a new clarinet quintet by Shulamit Ran written for us and the incredible clarinetist Anthony McGill, whom we love. The planning and ideas never stop!
The Brentano has appeared as often as or more often than any other at Rockport, for which I am most grateful. (Our Schumann Piano Quintet together at the Festival was a special and enjoyable outing.) Of the smaller halls, say, under 500 seats, around the world in which you’ve performed, what are some of your favorites? Besides the Shalin Liu, of course!
We absolutely love Rockport. We are the grateful ones for having the chance to come and play there and we also have great memories of our Schumann together. We are immensely fond of the incredible hall there. Other favorite small halls are Wigmore Hall, in London, and the chamber music hall at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. They have a slight advantage over Shalin Liu in that one doesn’t have to remind oneself not to be distracted by the beautiful scenery seen out the back!
Charpentier’s Suite in D Minor
Debussy’s String Quartet
Brahms’s Quartet in B-flat Major, Op. 67.
The Brentano Quartet (Nina Lee and Mark Steinberg, violins; Misha Amory, viola; and Serena Canin, cello) was founded in 1992; its only personnel change came in 1998 when cellist Nina Lee joined the quartet, succeeding founding member Michael Kannen. The following season the quartet became the first ensemble-in-residence at Princeton University, where they taught and performed for 15 years. In fall 2014 the quartet became the resident string quartet at the Yale School of Music, succeeding the Tokyo Quartet in that position. At Yale, they perform in concert each semester and work closely with the students in chamber music contexts.
In addition to performing the entire two-plus-century range of the standard quartet repertoire, the Brentano Quartet has a strong interest in both very old and very new music. It has performed many musical works pre-dating the string quartet as a medium, among them madrigals of Gesualdo, fantasias of Purcell, and secular vocal works of Josquin. Also, the quartet has worked closely with some of the important composers of our time, among them Elliott Carter, Charles Wuorinen, Chou Wen-chung, Steven Mackey, Bruce Adolphe, and György Kurtág. The quartet has commissioned works from Wuorinen, Adolphe, Mackey, David Horne, and Gabriela Frank. The quartet celebrated their 10th anniversary in 2002 by commissioning 10 composers to write companion pieces for selections from Bach’s Art of Fugue, the result of which was an electrifying and wide-ranging single concert program. The quartet has also worked with the celebrated poet Mark Strand, commissioning poetry from him to accompany works of Haydn and Webern.