by JD Fox, Burlington Writers Workshop
Preview of Johannes String Quartet with Fred Child: Beethoven and Bartók at the Flynn on Sunday, January 18 at 7 pm. This performance has limited tickets available. Call the FlynnTix Box Office at 802-863-5966 for more information.
They can build universes, connect communicating cans, or animate otherwise lifeless puppets.
Or they can be stretched across a piece of otherwise silent wood, a bow drawn against them, and fill our world with music that communicates an incredible range of emotions as the notes dance out of that contact and into our ears.
They can at least when you have the talent that is the Johannes String Quartet doing the drawing. They will be in concert this coming Sunday at 7 pm inFlynnSpace. Their performance will pair Bartók and Beethoven, finding the musical link between these two renowned yet so different composers. Acclaimed violinist and quartet leader Soovin Kim was kind enough to take time from his busy schedule to answer some questions about their music and this show in particular:
Q: Why “Johannes” String Quartet?
SK: Johannes in the classical music world is usually associated with Johannes Brahms, certainly a favorite of our group—and not coincidentally the repertoire of our first commercial CD that will be released later in 2015. It is not that we feel Brahms is “better” but that he is among our favorites and most satisfying to play.
Q: The Frank Solomon website says, “Their collaboration was forged at the Marlboro Music Festival in Vermont….” What attracted you to each other? What is it about the individual members—and their particular contributions—that allow you all to work well / play well together?
SK: As with most quartets, the ways in which the individual relationships, and subsequently the group relationship, develop are numerous and not always intentional. String quartets are often described as a marriage to three other people—and the quartet marriages can be arranged by “parents” (mentors), could be setups by a mutual friend, or can even be a celebrity stalking as there are certainly “star” performers in our world.
In our quartet’s case the three others who were playing at the time in Philadelphia Orchestra (in 1997) really wanted to play string quartets in addition to their full-time jobs, and they needed a fourth member. I was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia at that time and knew the other three members peripherally from past summers at music camps and the Marlboro Festival. We never planned on playing quartets for the next eighteen years, as we have. Another example of how life takes unexpected turns.
We each have our particular role in the quartet, partly defined by our individual personalities that form chemistry as a group of four people, just as four friends or four work colleagues in any profession. But in any string quartet’s case the roles are critically defined, as well, by our musical roles in string quartet writing—essentially the first violin being the soprano and often the lead voice, the second violin and viola being supportive inner voices that are often the rhythmic motor and the creme filling of the pie, and the cello being the bass and the foundation of the group.
Q: Why violin? And how is being a violinist different from playing other related instruments?
SK: I don’t know why violin—it was just the only instrument I wanted to play when I was three years old and was finally given when I was four. I was exposed to music at home through recordings—my parents were not musicians but are music-lovers—and at concerts that I attended. Several of my friends began Suzuki lessons around that age, and so I think I became jealous of their new toys.
Being a serious violinist certainly demands a neurotic persistence and discipline, even just a bit more than on other string instruments, because of the delicate and potentially squeaky nature of the violin. There is a fine line for us between sounding shimmeringly beautiful and shrill, just as with sopranos. We are often the most exposed instrument, sitting at the top of the orchestral and chamber music textures. Violin soloists are also often accused of being divas—again, not unlike sopranos. Great violin soloists cannot shy away from being absolutely exposed—they have to embrace it.
Q: Are there certain musical aesthetics that drives your playing and/or that you think contribute most to a “successful” performance? What about the group as a whole?
SK: I firmly believe that the most powerful listening experience might happen when the essence of the composition is captured—not just the essence of the performer. A brilliant performer, just as a brilliant actor, can play any few notes and be captivating. But once the instrumental and interpretive brilliance of the performer are in sync with the goal of the composer—whether that be some sort of emotional or philosophical experience—then the performance can be most magical.
Q: Why Beethoven and Bartok? What makes this project artistically compelling to you and how did you decide upon it?
SK: These two quartets are part of a program that we are presenting along with Mendelssohn Quartet in F minor, op. 80, that is entitled “Last Words.” The Beethoven and Mendelssohn works were written in those composers’ final year of life, and Bartok’s 6th quartet was his final quartet and written just a few years before he died. It is fascinating to experience how each composer represented that final phase of life through their music in different ways. This is also a special project because it is a presentation in conjunction with Performance Today radio host Fred Child. In this presentation he introduces the works historically and then illustrates specific fascinating musical examples that we demonstrate before performing the entire work.
Q: Obviously you want to put on a “good” show and for the audience to “enjoy” it, but are there certain things that you hope particularly stand out to the audience and/or that they “get” from the performance?
I hope that the audience will not only receive an immediate emotional and intellectual gratification from the performance, but I hope also that they will be inspired to further explore these works, these composers, other string quartets, and music in general. Perhaps those who are quite familiar with these works will be given a new perspective that makes them even more enjoyable.