Humanity Over Hard Perfection
By BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER
Among the many performances I attended at the 2013 Savannah Music Festival was an evening of dance. However, it wasn't the free-form choreography that captured my attention, but the musical accompaniment—a masterly nuanced performance of Schubert's "Death and the Maiden" string quartet played by the Dover Quartet.
Comprising violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee, violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and cellist Camden Shaw, all now 25, the group was formed in October 2008 while its members were students at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and gave its first official performance in February 2009. The Dover Quartet has quickly established a burgeoning presence in the music world. Having won a variety of competitions, including the first and grand prizes at the 2010 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition, the Dover swept the first and all subsidiary prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition.
The quartet's name pays tribute to "Dover Beach," the song cycle for baritone and string quartet by another Curtis alumnus, Samuel Barber. Ms. Pajaro-van de Stadt says, "We'd wanted a name connected to our Curtis and Philadelphia roots." At first they called themselves the Old City Quartet, for the historic district surrounding Independence Hall and the Philadelphia waterfront. "But," she says, "people started asking whether we meant Jerusalem or Beijing, or whether we were a jazz group."
Currently, the Dover is the Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts, the northern Westchester County estate renowned for its Summer Music Festival. On Friday, it is playing works by Haydn, Beethoven and the immensely gifted Holocaust victim Viktor Ullmann, in addition to the world premiere of a string quartet by Curtis faculty member David Ludwig, commissioned as part of the residency.
Besides the summer festival held outdoors on the estate's grounds, Caramoor also holds performances in the music room of the Rosen House (former home of collectors Lucie and Walter Rosen, who owned the original Caramoor estate). This intimate venue not only boasts fine acoustics, but antique architecture enhanced by sculpture, painting, tapestries, stained glass, and decorative works from the Rosen art collection.
In March I heard the Dover play Mozart, Janáček and Schubert quartets there. We spoke afterward and on the following day at the quartet's student presentation at a school in Ossining, N.Y., part of Caramoor's outreach program.
The Dover Quartet's distinctive musical sound contributes mightily to its interpretations. The four musicians rejoiced at my observation that the warm richness of their overall tone suggests the sound of playing exclusively on strings made from animal gut. Gut strings were the traditional material used before higher tuning and louder, more brilliant string sound necessitated the increased tensile strength and power of metal-wound synthetic and metal wire strings used today.
The Dover doesn't produce the twang often associated with certain historic-instrument ensembles. Instead it produces a palpable mellow roundness that belies its use of modern materials. "We definitely strive for an earthy sound—and gutsy, when appropriate," says Mr. Lee. Mr. Shaw expands upon the point: "Many of our greatest influences did play, and do play, on gut strings, so the sound world that we instinctively imagine probably contains many qualities exemplified by gut strings: nuance over power, color and humanity over hard perfection. We find modern strings incredibly versatile, however, and able to capture many gut-reminiscent qualities, provided they are in the player's ear."
In addition to matters of pure sound, the Dover's articulation of notes and phrases lends distinction to its aural persona. The players often attack a phrase by leaning into it with the implication of a tiny portamento—a little slide—up to the first note. To this ear, it recalls the empathetic, almost folklike bloom that was a distinctive element of the great English mezzo-soprano Dame Janet Baker's lieder singing. "The human voice is the most natural and personal of all instruments," says Ms. Pajaro-van de Stadt, "so we constantly strive to be as vocal as possible in our sound and phrasing. At least half of our rehearsal time consists of singing to each other instead of using words to argue or discuss sound, phrasing, nuance or articulation."
"We also work a lot on blend and general resonance," says Mr. Link. "And purity of intonation really helps a group sound ring."
Taking a slightly different tack, Mr. Shaw notes that "the trend in modern playing is for the attacks to be ever more immediate and clear. Perhaps it's to fill larger concert halls and because modern instruments are able to produce such a quick response to the bow. But when performers seek a perfect percussive 'ping' on the front of each note, the articulation of the notes becomes too simplified. Paradoxically, to search for absolutely precise articulation, as an abstract ideal, actually limits the scope of articulation because music is so varied and the expressive or coloristic demands of each note so different. So, we try to produce notes of many different aural shapes, according to the musical situation."
The quartet's songlike phrasing evokes the interpretive style of an earlier era. Its fleshly suppleness also reminds me of the round, deeply corporeal tone of the old Russian piano school, exemplified by such exponents as the late Shura Cherkassky. Did these young musicians actually listen to old recordings earlier in their youth? Mr. Link answers that "growing up, I always listened to recordings of the old masters—Heifetz, Kreisler, Oistrakh, Milstein, Kogan. There was something so human and emotional at the forefront of their playing. I also watched movies like 'Captain Blood,' 'Spellbound,' 'Since You Went Away' and others from Hollywood's 'Golden Age.' Those scores, by Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa and Max Steiner, and the playing in those movies are absolutely otherworldly. So, that kind of sound has always been in my head."
Mr. Shaw declares cellist Steven Isserlis and the late tenor Fritz Wunderlich among his favorite influences, and the Guarneri Quartet as "probably our biggest influence as an ensemble, with quartets like Budapest not far behind. We have also been greatly influenced by the Vermeer Quartet, and especially [its first violin] Shmuel Ashkenasi, who [at Curtis] was the first coach to encourage us to become a real quartet. He still coaches us today."
Asked if each Dover member arrived at Curtis aiming to play chamber music or with a soloist career in mind, Mr. Lee replies: "At the start, all of us had the notion to choose a career that would allow us to play chamber music in some capacity. I always loved playing in quartets, and I think the Curtis environment definitely nurtured that." Certainly, for all four musicians, that nurturing is yielding bountiful fruit.