Only ten years ago, the members of the Dover Quartet were fellow students at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute. That’s barely a finger-snap in the world of classical music.
Today, they’re the resident quartet at the Kennedy Center. They maintain a grueling touring schedule (more than 100 concerts this year), they’re performing at some of the world’s most prestigious venues and festivals, and they’re the subject of a film being released next year.
How are things going for them? Need we ask?
“Things are going very well,” says Camden Shaw, the quartet’s cellist. “We just finished the busiest month we’ve ever had, and we’ve been all over the place. It’s been very fun. Last month, we played for David Lynch’s Festival of Disruption after playing a concert in Los Angeles that day. …Weird stuff like that. Now we’re getting ready for Thanksgiving and a Beethoven recording that we’ll be doing in Philadelphia next year. It’ll be nice to be home.”
It won’t be much of a Thanksgiving break, though. The quartet, which includes Shaw, violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, and violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, visits Orange County on November 25.
In addition to creating food for the soul, the quartet is also dedicated to providing food for the body, through the charity Music for Food, an initiative enabling musicians to raise resources and awareness in the fight against hunger. The Philharmonic Society will host a food drive at the concert, asking patrons to donate non-perishable items which will be donated to a local food bank.
Their program is comprised of Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 3, Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 14, and contemporary composer Mason Bates’s “From Amber Frozen” at the Samueli Theater. The performance is being presented by The Philharmonic Society of Orange County as part of its Laguna Chamber Music Series.
In assembling the program, Shaw and company paid meticulous attention to both the total experience and the constituent parts.
“In general,” says Shaw, “we try to make each performance a whole. It’s like an excellent meal at a great restaurant; there’s a fair amount of variety but enough similarities to tie it in together.
“In this program, the Bates is a contrast to the outer two pieces, the Tchaikovsky and the Dvořák. The outer pieces share a lot – they’re both folk-music oriented – but they’re very different in style. One uses these Russian songs which are much heavier and thicker, and the other is very folksy in a Czech way, with shorter notes. It’s bouncier, lighter, light-hearted. The two composers are both dipping into their cultural comfort zones of what would have been almost pop music at the time, but they’re very different places so the music differs tremendously.”
As for “From Amber Frozen,” Bates is currently the composer in residence at the Kennedy Center, so the ensemble knows both the work and the writer very well. “It is a fantastic piece,” says Shaw. “It’s short, thirteen minutes, but it captures a lot of traditional ideas of string quartet writing using new language, a new vernacular.”
In comparing Bates to Beethoven, Shaw explains that that latter composer fragments the melody more frequently.“Beethoven will take a melody and then slice [it] into different pieces, and have the instruments play different elements, so you can hear the full melody but only as a composite effect. [Bates] did this in his piece, but the vernacular is different. It’s jazzy, twang-y, almost country, but rhythmically complex.”
“Another thing that’s cool about the Bates, is that he uses an arch form like a lot of short one-movement works,” Shaw says. “There’s a clear emotional climax in the middle, then it comes down and resolves the tension, but unlike other arch forms, Mason’s changes emotions distinctly in the middle. It’s almost a negative of a color photograph. He sets up a vibe that’s joking and quirky and finny, and slowly transforms the color in the middle to very sad and intense. The climax is a serious emotional climax and then he gradually transforms back into a jovial mood. It’s an arch form that flips upside down on itself.”
Obviously, Shaw and his fellow musicians have put a lot of thought into their work. They step into a tradition that makes numerous demands on the players, and approach their performances with an attitude that is both historically informed and focused on moment-by-moment creation.
“A quartet should sound clear and unified in its interpretation of a piece,” says Shaw. “It should be clearly thought through, cohesive. It should work as if the group were one instrument, and yet you can always hear individual personalities in the group, the individual voices; the idiosyncrasies have not been sacrificed for homogeneity. You need to know when the sound should blend, and when it should differentiate. That freedom and personality and balance will be different for everyone. The Guarneri had tremendously distinct personalities, but were always cohesive in the performance.”
And when that happens, when the players find that combination of blend and differentiation, the ultimate goal for Shaw is to find a transcendent moment where he himself almost evaporates. “I think the truly transcendent performance is when I feel like my conscious brain is as absent as possible,” he says.
“When you’re having a truly transcendent experience, you’re being used by the music to communicate,” Shaw explains. “That can only happen with preparation and planning, but in the actual moment, the mind is quite calm and you’re really a vessel, and that’s an amazing feeling. There’s no self, no fear, no grasping, no sense of being a person. You exist almost as an audience member; you’re listening more than playing.”
In other words, put in the time and effort, and then step out of the way.
“You have to make sure all the practical things are taken care of,” says Shaw. “You don’t want to walk on cold. But my chances of playing well improve when I remind myself that it’s not about me, that I’m here to participate in experiencing something meaningful. You have to not be afraid of doing something wrong, and be ready to enjoy the experience, to be glad to be on stage. If you get there, there’s no way it can go wrong.”
Peter Lefevre is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org