Aizuri Quartet
Sunday November 15, 2015 4:00pm

Aizuri Quartet

2015-16 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence

Overview

Our newest String Quartet-in-Residence was introduced to us by way of two of its members, Ayane Kozasa and Karen Ouzounian, alumnae of our Evnin Rising Stars program. Formed in 2012, the Aizuri Quartet is currently in residence at the Curtis Institute of Music and served as resident ensemble of the 2014 Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute.

The Aizuri, who derive their name from “aizuri-e”, the Japanese art of indigo woodblock printing, are committed to performing works throughout the string quartet literature, from the great standard works to innovative, experimental and genre-defying pieces. As members of the close-knit Caramoor family, we are thrilled to be welcoming these women (back) to Caramoor!

Mozart  String Quartet No. 21 in D Major, K. 575
Berg  String Quartet, Op. 3
Sibelius String Quartet ‘Voces Intimae,’ Op. 56

One extremely promising string quartet is chosen each year to complete a year-long residency at Caramoor. This group lends their time and talents to Caramoor’s Student Strings program in secondary schools with a classroom-based program of concerts, conversations, and performance clinics. The Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence performs at Caramoor throughout their residency, enabling the public to experience these exciting young players in an intimate setting.  The Aizuri is the 16th Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at Caramoor. They will be visiting schools as music mentors in the fall and spring, and performing concerts at Caramoor in the fall, spring, and summer.

18-Free tickets for students 18 and under.

Aizuri Quartet / Beethoven / Quartet Op. 59, No. 3

Aizuri Quartet

2015-16 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence
Miho Saegusa, violin
Zoë Martin-Doike, violin
Ayane Kozasa, viola
Karen Ouzounian, cello

The Aizuri Quartet was the String Quartet-in-Residence at the venerated Curtis Institute of Music in 2015. During the course of its residency, the Quartet appeared in various venues throughout Philadelphia, including Field Concert Hall, the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, World Café Live, and on WRTI’s musician-hosted radio special “Philadelphia Music Makers.” In addition to working closely with the Curtis Institute of Music’s renowned faculty, the Aizuri Quartet was featured throughout an online course on the history and repertoire of the string quartet titled “The World of the String Quartet,” hosted by Arnold Steinhardt and presented by Coursera.

Highlights of the 2014-2015 season included performances in Paris, Dresden, Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, and the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City. Collaborators throughout the season included cellist Peter Wiley, pianist Jonathan Biss, the Aeolus String Quartet, poet Denice Frohman, and composers Lembit Beecher and Andrew Lipke. The Aizuri Quartet was the resident ensemble of the 2014 Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute.

Formed in 2012 and comprising of graduates of the Juilliard School and Curtis Institute of Music, the Aizuri Quartet is the culmination of years of music-making between its members. The Quartet gave its debut performance on the Tertulia Chamber Music series in New York City, and participated in the 2013 Juilliard String Quartet Seminar. Projects during the 2013-2014 season included a residency at the Scrag Mountain Music Festival in Vermont, as well as performances and educational programs in New York City, Philadelphia, Memphis, and at the ArtsNaples World Festival in Naples, Florida.

Individual members of the quartet have won top prizes in the Primrose International Viola Competition and Astral Artists National Auditions, and have collaborated with artists Pamela Frank, Miriam Fried, Richard Goode, Kim Kashkashian, and Mitsuko Uchida among others. They have appeared throughout North America and Europe with a diverse range of ensembles including Musicians from Marlboro, Musicians from Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, Curtis on Tour, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, A Far Cry, The Knights, IRIS Orchestra, the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, Opera Philadelphia, and counter)induction.

Violist Ayane Kozasa and cellist Karen Ouzounian participated in Caramoor’s Evnin Rising Stars mentoring program in 2012 and 2013.

About the Music.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart / (1756-1791) / String Quartet No. 21 in D major, K.575

Toward the end of March 1789, Mozart joined his friend and pupil, Prince Karl Lichnowsky, on a trip to Berlin, where Lichnowsky promised to introduce him to King Friedrich Wilhelm II, an experienced and enthusiastic cellist. Mozart was no doubt happy to have an excuse to leave his creditors in Vienna for a time, and there was always the prospect of financial betterment through performances or commissions at the Prussian court.

He visited the court on May 26; it is conceivable that he was invited to compose some string quartets for the king. At any rate, he bought some manuscript paper on his trip and used it for the D-major quartet, the first of three works known as the “Prussian” quartets from their presumed connection with the court at Berlin. He probably had the piece well under way before returning to Vienna on June 4. Soon after, he wrote to his patient friend and fellow Mason, Michael Puchberg (who had generously and repeatedly lent fairly substantial sums to Mozart with little more than promissory notes in return), that he was busy writing six easy clavier sonatas for Princess Friederike and six quartets “for the king.” He did not, however, say that the quartets had been commissioned; quite possibly he was writing “on spec,” hoping that the monarch would respond with a generous gift of cash.

In any case, Mozart completed only three of the six proposed quartets, and those were not published until after the composer’s death two years later—and then with no dedication. The composition of the set had been interrupted after the completion of the first quartet by Mozart’s involvement with the last of his operas to a Da Ponte libretto, Cosi fan tutte. A gap of eleven months intervened between the first and second quartets. He never found string-quartet writing easy, and here he was confronted with a stylistic problem as well. If the cello was to predominate (as a graceful gesture to the intended dedicatee’s own instrument), there was the risk of violating Mozart’s own sense of balance precisely in the musical ensemble that most clearly calls for the weight of significance to be equally divided—especially by 1790, after the series of quartets that Haydn and Mozart himself had composed in the preceding decade or so. So, for the sake of symmetry, Mozart cast the quartets in a style that offered each of the instruments important melodic material, thus bringing the cello into prominence periodically. After the present K.575, he more or less abandoned the idea of highlighting the cello. But there are still many passages in which the cello carries a melodic line into the alto register and the other instruments assume the function of accompanists. The melodic line as a whole is broader and less motivic than in the six earlier quartets that Mozart had dedicated to Haydn.

The first movement begins with the unusual performance marking “sotto voce,” a term normally used for singers and roughly equivalent to the theatrical designation “aside”—that is, something that we seem to be overhearing as if by accident, an internal thought process not intended to be made public. The same designation appears at the beginning of the second movement, the songlike character of which allows Mozart greater freedom in featuring the cello from mid-movement to the end.

The cello is simply part of a couple—paired with the viola—through the Menuetto, but it comes into its own in the Trio, where the remaining three instruments are frankly accompanying. The finale is by far the weightiest of the four movements; here, too, the cello is notable in announcing the principal theme of the rondo and playing other important roles in the more contrapuntal passages that follow. Mozart projects the rondo’s shape in sections that alternate the songful with the intricately polyphonic, with no sign of the struggles that the work had cost him.

 

Alban Berg / (1885-1935) / String Quartet, Op. 3

Alban Berg was one of the two most famous pupils of Arnold Schoenberg, with whom he studied from the autumn of 1904 to 1910. During these years, Berg and his fellow pupil Anton Webern shared with Schoenberg in the excitement and experimentation that led to a new musical language. Prior to undertaking lessons with Schoenberg, who became a kind of surrogate father to him (his own father had died when he was fifteen), Berg was almost entirely self-taught as a composer, and he concentrated on the composition of songs.

One of Schoenberg’s functions as a teacher was to direct Berg in the composition of purely instrumental music, composed without the framework of a poem to give it a priori shape. They began with the Piano Sonata, Opus 1. Berg’s Opus 2 was another set of songs which, like Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, gradually moved beyond the reach of tonal centers. Then came the String Quartet, Opus 3, Berg’s final composition written under Schoenberg’s direct tutelage, a work of such remarkable accomplishment that it astonished the teacher who had watched it take shape.

That Berg had already learned the art of motivic development is evident in the Piano Sonata, but the String Quartet raises these to a new level of complexity and thorough-going consistency. He cast the two movements of the work—the first “slow” (relatively speaking) and the second “fast”)—in a ground-plan that suggests sonata form, though of course without the tensions of key that an earlier composer would have employed. Already Berg was shaping his music using harmonic and melodic devices that were to play an important role in later works: nearly complete collections of wholetone material with an odd “misplaced” element (in the very opening gesture by the second violin); symmetrical expansion from a single note (the very next gesture of the second violin); wedge-like patterns between two lines, moving wider apart in a systematic way (the accompaniment in viola and cello to this opening gesture in the second violin).

The opening motive functions melodically as a “first theme;” Berg intensifies this through repetition in richer and thicker texture and then relaxes to a single repeated note in the cello to provide the feeling of space for the “secondary theme.” But this, too, is made up of harmonic materials consistent with and integrated into the opening ideas. The second movement is more outgoing and dynamic, with stronger contrasts at high tension between the principal ideas. Both movements fuse the familiar formal patterns of the past with a richness of contrapuntal detail, constantly developing, evolving, reappearing in different combinations, ever richer.

Berg wrote this quartet as a love song to Helene Nahowski, who became his wife and to whom it is dedicated. He was composing it during the most intense days of their courtship. The world premiere took place on April 24, 1911, only a week and a half before their wedding.

 

Jean Sibelius / (1865-1957) / String Quartet, Op. 56, “Voces Intimae”

Sibelius is almost always represented in concert by his large-scale works, the seven symphonies and the violin concerto, less frequently the tone poems inspired by the Kalevala, the Finnish epic. In Finland itself his early choral works may be heard, but far less often elsewhere because of the language problem. His early work included a substantial amount of chamber music, and throughout his life he continued to turn out smaller works of a popular character to make an income from their sale, but they have played virtually no role in his reputation as a composer, which relies on the grand works of intricate, large-scale structure in which musical ideas seem to coalesce slowly but steadily into grand structures of a determined character.

The principal exception to this generality is his only really important chamber work, the String Quartet in D minor, called “Voces intimae” (“intimate voices”) from the phrase that he wrote in the twenty-first measure of the central slow movement of a copy of the score that he gave to a friend. Listeners who know the symphonies and hear this quartet for the first time will almost surely identify it immediately as a work of Sibelius. Though laid out for just four solo instruments, it unfolds with the same sort of long-term growth as the symphonies, and with readily identifiable thematic references from one movement to another.

Untypically, it is cast in five movements, and its harmonic language employs both the traditional major and minor keys but also, to a great extent, the modal materials that evoke Scandinavian folk traditions (though there is almost nothing that suggests simple folk song).

Sibelius began to write the quartet at the end of 1908 after competing Night Ride and Sunrise, hence in the gap between composition of the third and fourth symphonies. He completed it in early 1909 and sent it to his publisher on April 15, at which time he described it thus in an enthusiastic letter to his wife: “It turned out as something wonderful. The kind of thing that brings a smile to your lips at the hour of death. I will say no more.”

The first movement begins with a slow dialogue between the first violin and the cello, introducing materials that will return later. From beginning to end of the quartet, there is a sense of flow, at different tempi, but without major interruptions; the four instruments intertwine in intense, though unpressured, counterpoint. The secondary thematic idea is in a bright A major, sunny against the somberness of the opening. When the movement ends, it is continues directly in a scherzo derived largely from elements of the first, though not in an obvious way. Its main character comes from the fact that, almost throughout, the players have a busy pattern of repeated notes: 16ths played staccato in the time of every 8th note.

The Adagio di molto is the central movement in more than physical placement. It ruminates deeply and suggests passionate thoughts at climaxes, though here as elsewhere the sound is subdued, and it dies away in an intense quiet.

The fourth movement is a heavy dance in ¾ time, and in D minor. This alone evokes the finale of the Violin Concerto, which Donald Francis Tovey labeled “a polonaise for polar bears.” Here the weight (from the four stringed instruments) is not so heavy as that of the full orchestra in the concerto, but the sense a foot-stamping dance is palpable. After four movements that remain, for the most part, in the texture and volume of chamber music, the finale is more outgoing and assertive, with some of the energy and vigor of the tone poems. And it justifiably ends in a full-hearted loud close, almost symphonic in character.

© Steven Ledbetter