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NEC Quartets To Be Fêted


The father of the string quartet

New England Conservatory celebrates its Professional String Quartet Training Program with three concerts in seven days, recognizing six of the ensembles that have participated since the program’s origins, in September 11th,  2001. The three Jordan Hall concerts, also marking NEC’s 150th anniversary, take place on: April 1stJupiter and Parker Quartets, 7:30pm; April 4thHarlem and Omer Quartets, 7:30pm;  April 8thAriel and Verona Quartets, 8pm. (Complete programs appear at end.)

The prestigious training program, led by Cleveland Quartet founding cellist Paul Katz, selects one ensemble every other year for a two-year residency. Selection comes with a full tuition scholarship and $10,000 stipend for each student, weekly coaching sessions from Katz plus weekly individual studio instruction from string faculty, daily group rehearsal, and training in all aspects of not only musicianship but career development. Quartets perform a yearly recital in the world-renowned Jordan Hall. Since 2001, the program has welcomed the Kuss, Biava, Jupiter, Parker, Ariel, Harlem, Omer, and Verona Quartets; the Biava disbanded after a few successful years.

Paul Katz spoke with BMInt recently about the nurturing and marketing of his chosen ensembles.

FLE: Is this a Golden Age for string quartets?

PK: I think the last 30 or 40 years have been. When the Cleveland Quartet was a young quartet, in the ’80s, a documentary, In the Mainstream: the Cleveland Quartet, was all over Arts & Entertainment Network for a year. It was back in the days of cable, and they would repeat things five or six times a day to fill up the space. We had an active international career going, and the film made the point that the string quartet was now an accepted part of the mainstream of the concertizing world. The Tokyo, Cleveland, and the Vermeer all started in the same year, the Guarneri just a few years before.

And string quartets today are even more in the mainstream—there has been a huge jump up in the number. The development of a residency system for conservatories and universities that began in the United States now exists in cities large and small. The financial support from these educational institutions has made a combination chamber-music-and-teaching career financially viable and is a major reason so many professional groups now exist. There are some faculty trios, and even wind and brass residencies, but the string quartet seems to be the preferred ensemble for schools that can afford it.

Also, there is more democratization. Everybody can put their stuff up on YouTube, providing more of an equal opportunity playing field now than when the Cleveland Quartet began, in 1969. At that time, those of us who were able to mount a career had labels promoting us internationally: RCA Red Seal, with their advertising and the worldwide promotion of our records, basically established an international career for us. When we’d go to London, they’d arrange magazine interviews and radio appearances. None of that exists for quartets anymore, or maybe for musicians in general. There are still a few superstar careers that span the oceans. But for most of today’s finest quartets, like Brentano or Borromeo, while international travel exists, their careers now are much more domestic than they used to be.

But it seems, as you were saying, in 1980 there were five or six string quartets that were in the top tier that could fill a large auditorium. And you just didn’t think about all the others. In Boston, there were three quartets, the Borromeo, the Muir, and the Lydian. It seems like there are three times as many now and the notion of a top tier doesn’t exist so much anymore.

Yes, well, there’s several reasons for that. Our national service organizaion, Chamber Music America, began at this time and has had a huge impact on the professional opportunities and lives of the entire chamber music world. And what I was describing in the ’70s, this development of more conservatory and university residencies, this expansion over 40 years, has had a multiplying effect. All of those ensembles have served as role models for the next generation of students. When I was a kid, playing string quartets, or for that manner chamber music in general, did not really look like a viable career path. Few music students thought of it. Whereas today, coming out of conservatories, a good percentage of our string students want to play chamber music professionally. And if you think back to the first part of the 20th century, I mean, Busch, Flonzaley, Juilliard, Budapest, Kneisel, that’s about it. The world has been evolving for the better in that sense for sure.

So are there too many now?

Well, no, never too many! When I started playing string quartets, I never thought that I would have an international career, I just loved what I did, and I actually think I could have had a very fulfilling and rich life teaching and playing locally and serving the community of Toledo. With the residency system where groups join conservatory and university faculties, which provides a teaching income, most viable groups can find their niche; they’re valuable regionally. There is so much excellence now, and so many deserving musicians—the goal need not be international stardom.

not just in Spillville, Iowa. [laughter]

Yeah, not just Spillville, Iowa. But why not Spillville?! What I love is that fine players are now thick on the ground everywhere—more and more communities large and small can hear late Beethoven!

NEC is the best string department in the country by all accounts.

I have to pinch myself every time one of these groups goes out and gets a New York manager and actually establishes a successful traveling performing career. But even if a group that graduates from the program does wind up in Spillville, Iowa, that serves a function in society and makes for a productive musical life. Not everybody has to have an international career; in fact, many fine players don’t crave one. Fighting TSA and airline callousness is not everyone’s cup of tea. And there are wonderful players who prefer a stable family home life. Whether it’s as cellist or a string quartet coach, I view my mentoring role to help people find their calling, to be the best that they can be. A rewarding life in music need not be tied to international fame. I believe humankind has a need for music, yes, even great music; so enriching the cultural life of smaller places has a nobility of purpose, and can enrich and fulfill the life of the player and community.

Do you think much of this focus on playing in a quartet is because it’s so hard to get into a major orchestra?

I don’t think so. Almost the opposite. Those who cannot find a string quartet to play in, or a quartet that cannot find a residency or make a viable living, throw in the towel and will audition for orchestras. Quartet players are driven by their love for the process. I’m advising my kids all the time about what would they like to do when they graduate, and helping them clarify their priorities. It’s a passion for making chamber music and not money or fame that leads young musicians down the quartet path. The people who go into chamber music are not generally attracted to the idea of an orchestral career, in fact it’s usually their fallback option. When the chamber music bug bites, it’s a very, very passionate kind of thing that grabs you. And yeah, that’s really what pushes people into chamber music.

There’s much more opportunity than there used to be, but when a person decides they’re going to make their life in a string quartet, they’re still basically saying to themselves at the same time, I don’t care if I make a lot of money. I’m willing to live less of a high lifestyle in order to do what I love.

And you have to love it to practice eight hours a day, five or six days a week, to get that level of perfection.

That’s right. In fact, the string quartet is the most difficult of all performance mediums. The technical challenges are greater than that of a piano trio, and the repertoire is so vast and profound, that one spends a lifetime living up to the challenges. But that’s what’s so beautiful and rewarding about it.

* * *

Does your program have an agenda or a house style?

Oh, no. That would be terrible. Whether I’m working with an individual cellist in my studio, or a quartet, I’m helping the individuals find themselves, find their own voices, find sincerity, authenticity. Of course, I’m teaching them certain traditional and sometimes nontraditional approaches to a movement or a composer or whatever. But what makes each of these groups successful is that they do have their own honest voice. None of them is generic.

Is it my imagination that 30 or more years ago there was more a generic approved style, and now quartets feel freer to be more expressive and to use romantic devices more?

You’ve got me thinking there. When the CD and digital technology came out in the ’80s, that seemed to just freeze everybody, because everything was so transparent with the clean, digital technology on a backdrop of total silence. For many, perfection seemed to become the only goal. But so many of us, at least in teaching positions, have fought that over the years, because we found that so stifling and inhibiting for ourselves, and a negative pressure of course for all of today’s young players. Thus we push communication, not perfection. If you’re hearing some difference, some evolution of performance values and priorities back in that direction, I like that. I hope you’re right.

I can hear in some quartets that they’ve listened to historic recordings. And when you listen to some of those old acoustic recordings, you hear techniques that are far below what we hear now, and there was less vibrato, that the imperfections in tuning were more obvious, and of course, there were no take-twos and splicing. And they had a lot more delicacy and a lot more portamento. I’m beginning to hear more of that now.

I’m not sure about the vibrato observation; I think that that’s maybe a dangerous generalization. The recording standards of the time, the technology of the time, didn’t pick up a lot of the overtones and the resonance of instruments, and I think it probably didn’t pick up the sound of the vibrato motion that well either. Microphones were not as sensitive then. Having made 70 recordings, both in the days of longplay (LP) analog, and now in the digital world, I can speak firsthand of the differences. When we began in 1972 at RCA Red Seal, we had to vibrate like crazy for the microphones, play with greater intensity and exaggeration. Ten years later, with the invention of the CD, it was just the opposite. Every little scratchy sound showed up, we were afraid to take a breath. Breath control became the number one necessity.

They certainly had vibrato, it just wasn’t uniformly applied. It was an expressive device along with other things like portamento, that seemed to be rarer years ago and seems to be more common now.

Well, I was just having a similar discussion with somebody a couple of weeks ago. I think, another way to look at it is that with globalization and with the ease of moving around the world, there’s been an amalgamation of cultures. I know, like listening to Eastern European quartets in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, when I was judging the Munich Quartet competition, there was a huge cultural difference. Eastern Europeans didn’t vibrate like that in their own quartet tradition, or in their own string playing tradition. Just as countries slowly are losing their individual traditions and identities, so are musicians. Hopefully we are taking the best from each other

Was I hearing Hungarian traditions?

It’s so hard to say, because you would think that the Russian tradition would have influenced Eastern Europe more than it did. The Russians certainly vibrate. [laughter] And you always find somehow that the great talents very often kind of don’t fall within the cultural norms of what they grew up in.

A lot of Europeans, even today, will tell you that American musicians play only fast and loud. It’s not true. It’s certainly not the way I think of musicmaking, and neither do my musical friends and colleagues. The world is full of great talent and there are many ways to make music.

When I heard the Elias String Quartet in Rockport, and I reviewed them for the Intelligencer, I was just bowled over by their playing. It was just the opposite of fast and loud. They invited us in, because they had the most incredible pianissimos, and they weren’t afraid to avoid overselling everything.

Well, that was one of my favorite quartets. I think it’s probably 10 years back that they were here. They’re fine artists. I just love them, and maybe you know, maybe you might not know, that for 25 years now there’s an organization in Paris called Pro Quartet. They’ve had a lot to do with developing the young quartets that are coming out of Europe. I’ve been going once or twice a year, and I coach these 10-day academies when I go, kind of a nice working vacation in Paris. Ten years ago, I met the young Elias Quartet. NEC has a joint program with Pro Quartet. All of our groups go to Paris for 10 days of coaching, and NEC foots the bill for that. And then a group from Europe comes and studies with me for 10 days at NEC and plays a concert in Jordan Hall. The Elias Quartet came maybe 10 years ago or so, and was here and played. I invited them after I’d worked with them in Paris. I’m delighted to hear that they’re still doing so well, because I sort of lost contact with them.

* * *

I’d like to have a sense of what goes on in your coaching sessions. I gather that the quartets in the program spend a certain amount of time with individual lessons on their instruments and a certain amount of time chamber coaching with you and four or five others. Do you assign them a piece and ask them to prepare it? And then what sort of conversations do you have?

Perhaps the most important power of the program is that it involves the entire NEC string department. Even in terms of the selection of the quartet, which is a competitive audition where we listen to several every two years and select one, usually seven or eight people are in on the decision. I want my colleagues to help me make the selection; they need to buy into the quartet, because everybody in the group gets private instrumental study. If Miriam Fried or Don Weilerstein are not interested in teaching the violinist in the group, well, what’s the point? Whether it’s from Kim Kashkashian or Larry Lesser or Martha Katz, everybody in the group is getting private study, and that can and does make a significant difference over the course of two years. Then in addition to studying quartets with me, they get to coach quartets with one other faculty member each semester. I see them twice a week, then a third time each week they work with somebody else. The chamber music experience on the NEC faculty is so deep. Take the Verona, for example. Last semester, they studied quartets with Miriam Fried, and this semester they’re studying with Kim Kashkashian. That’s in addition to playing for me twice a week.

In terms of repertoire, you can’t generalize. These quartets are all at different stages of their careers. Some have been together for five or six years. Some are in their second year. Some have repertoire gaps that they need to fill. All of this is done by discussion and mutual agreement. Very often, I’ll feel that there’s some interpretative weakness in the group, so I’ll suggest to them a couple of pieces to study with me, because I’d like them to develop this or that aspect of their playing. The present group, the Verona, is already with Concert Artists Guild Management in New York, so they’ve got concert commitments this year. They’ve got pieces that they committed to perform before they even came to New England Conservatory. I’m helping them study those new works as the year goes on. There’s a million reasons for the kind of the repertoire selection.

Would these discussions sound like a public masterclass that we might have heard? How often do you interrupt? And you direct comments at individuals as well as the whole group, presumably.

Every group, every coaching, is different. If I feel that a group really needs to sharpen their ears in terms of how they listen to each other, how they interact, or if I feel intonation or ensemble is a weakness, I might be stopping them over and over and over and working in great detail. I can get pretty obsessive with trying to make my point or trying and get them to a new place. But on the other hand, if I feel that the group is a little bit uptight and needs to free themselves and take risks, that kind of picky teaching could be counterproductive. Then I would shut up with the criticism, have them perform more for me in the lessons, and concentrate on emotional content, communication, and the big picture. I’m just responding to what I hear and what I feel the group needs.

And you might ask them to play lines individually?

Occasionally yes, I will, yes. For example, if I heard something that’s not quite working in an inner voice, I might ask somebody to, but I try not to put individuals on the spot too much. That’s just my own style. More frequently I would have two of them play together—like the second violin and viola—if they’re moving together as a part, I’ll have them try something for balance, or bow distribution. Getting people to work more together. But occasionally I’ll say to a single player, oh, play those two bars for me. I just feel I really need to hear something, and then I’ll say, oh, it’s that downshift there that was bothering me, or that C-sharp is too high, or something such as that, I do that as well.

Do you talk about stylistic things, whether the Brahms should sound like Brahms and the Bartok should sound like Bartok? And that the styles need to be very different?

That’s where my major help can be. I’ve got two years to give as much as I can to a group, and most of these groups, by the time they come in, they’re technically accomplished instrumentalists, and they pretty well know how to work on that. But after living for decades in the late Beethoven quartets, for example, I have knowledge and insights that I can pass on to them, to them and through them, to the next generation. I spend much more time on that than tuning a chord. We just had our first rehearsal two days on the Schubert Quintet that I’m going to play with the Verona on the final concert of our upcoming quartet week. They know the Schubert Quintet. They’ve played it before. But I want to help them to a new level with discussion about the spiritual qualities of the piece, about Schubert in general, about the transcendent quality of this music, about the major-mode sadness, Schubert’s preoccupation with death, the fatalistic qualities, and so forth. I think I can help them get to a new interpretative level, and that’s really for me what the reward is.

And that’s probably what attracts these groups to apply. Knowing that you’re going to bring that.

I hope so. I don’t know what the word on the street is, but they keep applying, so I guess it’s pretty good. [laughter]

Do you always have seven or eight applying to get in each time you open a new chapter?

Yes. Seven, eight, sometimes 11 or 12. They all have to send DVDs, and I make a first cut before inviting them for a live audition and presenting them to my faculty colleagues. The preliminary cut is both for the sake of the quartets as well as us at NEC. It costs a lot of money for a string quartet, plus a seat on the airplane for a cello, to fly to Boston, pay for a hotel, and all of that. It’s a big investment. If I don’t think a group is viable, then I will just cut them. Depending on the year, there are usually three to six groups that I actually invite for a live audition.

You can tell in 30 seconds whether they make the first cut?

Sometimes it’s more difficult, and I’m trying to be fair. I don’t want to cut anybody that I think really has a chance, but yeah, for the really poor ones, it takes 30 seconds. Not too many of those apply though. Most can really play. We have groups from Europe and Asia that apply, so I spend quite a bit of time listening to those groups before I decide to actually have them go ahead with the trip. I don’t take the invitation lightly.

And do you see if the ones you invite to play are teachable? Do you see whether can absorb any of your suggestions?

I’m glad you asked that question, because what we do is, in addition to their playing, we then have an interview session where they come and talk to the panel. And that’s a 15- or 20-minute conversation, because we want to get a sense of their personalities, ambitions, and musical values. If somebody is arrogant or overly opinionated or overly aggressive, you pick up on that sort of stuff. And beyond that, we’re all interested in what drives them. Why do you want to be a quartet? If they say, because we want to get rich . . .[laughter], or we want to be famous, that’s a red flag for the panel. But more often we hear, “We love playing together, we love the repertoire, I can’t imagine anything else, doing anything else with my life.…” These people are motivated by the right reasons, willing to sacrifice. No group makes it without a certain kind of idealism. When we hear that in a group, and if they play terrifically well, well, that gives us confidence.

We also observe how they interact with one another. You know, I’m sure you’ve heard the cliché, but I never get tired of repeating it, that a string quartet is a four-way marriage with all of the bad stuff and none of the good stuff!

I recently talked with the Apollon Musagete after a really fine concert. They said, We are not really friends, but we’re superb colleagues. That was an interesting kind of marriage. I can see the safety in that.

Different groups have different ways of interacting. There are two sides to it: one is friendship, and the other is mutual respect. And I think mutual respect is more important. If you’re playing every day with somebody, and you think you’re just better than they are, or you look down on them a little bit, that’s the kind of poison that can ruin a group. Whereas if you can have enormous regard for each other as musicians but might not feel like you need to hang out and have a beer with them, that relationship can work. Quartets can function in different ways. Most groups that stay together for many years find it healthy to build in some time apart. In the Cleveland Quartet, we developed closeness and friendships that we have kept for 50 years. I value my colleagues as friends and they have enriched my life, but it doesn’t have to be that way for every group.

Do you miss playing in a string quartet? How often do you informally play?

I do miss it. But I’m so involved in string quartets just because of what we’re talking about today. I do still live in the repertoire. I still am concerned with all the same issues. On WGBH last night, somebody was saying that when you’re young, you want to be a hero. When you get older, and you can’t dribble as fast, and you can’t shoot the ball as you did when you were young, instead of continuing to strive to be a hero you can help somebody younger than you become a hero. That’s the way I think of teaching. When I see younger people with the same passion that I had (and have), I just want to help that. That’s always been fulfilling and rewarding for me, even at the height of my performing career. And at this point in my life, it’s replaced most of my passion for being onstage … though not all of it. (laughter)


Let’s talk about the week of celebration.

We have three concerts shared by six quartets. The way the concert pairings worked out had more to do with the days these busy groups were available than anything else. As it turned out, I like the pairings. Putting the programs together, my major aim was that all the groups had equal stature, were presented equally. In terms of programming, everybody had an equal shot. For example, in the second concert, with the Harlem and the Omer Quartets, there’s the Shostakovich Octet at the end of the evening, and the Harlem is going to play first parts on that. Therefore, I gave the Omer a bigger role in terms of the individual quartet part of the program. The Parker and Jupiter had another way of working it out. They’re playing two huge mixed works, and they trade the first parts. In the Schoenberg, the Jupiters are playing the first parts, and in the Brahms, the Parkers are playing the firsts. And then, each play short quartet pieces so that each is also heard as a group. Thus, in the programming, there’s an equality all the way through.

And you get the last word playing in the Cello Quintet of Schubert.

I love it, although that actually wasn’t my idea. That was Hank Mou, the Assistant for Student Life at NEC. But of course, I jumped at it. And I adore coaching from within a group when I can. To be able to sit inside of the Verona and work with them is a little bit different from coaching from the outside. And we’re enjoying that.

Which cello part are you taking?

The guest always plays second; it’s a long-established tradition. Can you believe that cellists like Rostropovich, Leonard Rose, Lynn Harrell, Bernard Greenhouse played second to me? And the Cleveland Quartet recorded it with Yo-Yo Ma playing second. I’ve been guesting with other quartets, relishing the second part, ever since my retirement from the Cleveland. I love it! First and second only means higher and lower. By the way, most string quartets do not designate first and second violins, as it sends the wrong message to the public. A quartet, and chamber music in general, are based on equality: we are talking about different but equal roles.

And sometimes second is more interesting.

Schubert did a fantastic job of giving equality to all five parts. For 26 years in the Cleveland Quartet, I played the first part all the time. And for the 22 years after the Cleveland Quartet, I’ve been playing the second part most of the time. I have no preference.

* * *

By the way, I’ve asked Dan Stepner, formerly first violinist in the Lydian Quartet, to cover the six ensembles to produce an unconventional review. I want more the feeling of a masterclass, rather than rankings or value judgments. We want interesting comparisons about interpretations through the reactions of an experienced string quartet member who can also write. I hope Dan can provide a lesson for all of us who occasionally review.

That’s fantastic. Some people like steak and some people like lobster.

He shouldn’t necessarily say “I like this” or “I don’t like that”, but he should be able to characterize and describe what he hears.

As good musicians, we can, we should be able to, admire somebody who plays very differently from us. It will be very interesting. I look forward to seeing what Dan writes.

Well, thanks for the talk, and to be continued.

It was a pleasure talking to you. You know your stuff.

* * *

Paul Katz ca 2005

The graduates of the Professional String Quartet Training Program:

Verona Quartet 2019
Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violin; Abigail Rojansky, viola,; Jonathan Dormand ’12 MM, cello

Omer Quartet 2017
Mason Yu, Erica Tursi, violin; Jinsun Hong, viola; Alex Cox, cello

Harlem Quartet 2012
Ilmar Gavilán and Melissa White, violin; Juan-Miguel Hernandez, viola; Paul Wiancko, cello

Ariel String Quartet 2010
Gershon Gerchikov and Alexandra Kazovsky, violin; Sergey Tarashchansky, viola; Amit Even-Tov, cello

Parker Quartet 2008
Daniel Chong and Karen Kim, violin; Jessica Bodner, viola; Kee-hyun Kim, cello

Jupiter String Quartet 2006
Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, violin; Liz Freivogel, viola; Daniel McDonough, cello

Biava Quartet 2004
Austin Hartman and Hyunsu Ko, violin; Mary Persin, viola; Jacob Braun, cello

Kuss Quartet 2002
Jana Kuss and Oliver Wille, violin; William Coleman, viola; Felix M. Nickel, cello

The FREE Jordan Hall Concerts:

April 1, 7:30pm, Jupiter and Parker
Stravinsky: Concertino for String Quartet – Parker Quartet
Schoenberg: Verklärte Nacht for String Sextet – members of Parker and Jupiter quartets
Dvořák: Selections from Cypresses – Jupiter String Quartet
Brahms: String Sextet No. 2 – members of Jupiter and Parker quartets

April 4, 7:30pm, Harlem and Omer
Mozart: “Dissonance” Quartet Op. 464.
Webern: Bagatelles
Guido Lópes-Gavilán, Cuarteto en Guaguancó – Harlem Quartet
Strayhorn (arr. Paul Chihara): Take the ‘A’ Train – Harlem Quartet
Shostakovich, Prelude and Scherzo for String Octet – Harlem and Omer quartets

April 8, 8pm, Ariel and Verona
Beethoven: String Quartet in G Major, Op. 18 No. 2 – Ariel Quartet
Janáček: String Quartet No. 1, Kreutzer Sonata – Ariel Quartet
Schubert: Cello Quintet – Verona Quartet with Paul Katz

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