Canada A Conversation with the Dover Quartet
The young Dover Quartet won not only the Grand Prize but all three Special Prizes at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, and received top prizes at the Fischoff and the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competitions. Originally formed at the Curtis Institute of Music, the group came together in 2008, when its members were only 19 years old, and the ensemble has recently been named the school’s first-ever Quartet-In-Residence. Currently on a whirlwind tour around North America (including San Juan, Puerto Rico), the quartet will play as many as twelve concerts a month.
Conducting an interview with the Dover Quartet was unique, since three of its four members (Joel Link, Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and Camden Shaw) wanted to participate. In their responses, they played off each other’s themes, argued and debated with each other—just like a good string quartet should. What follows below is composite—a weighted average—of the musicians’ responses.
Geoffrey Newman: Beethoven’s ‘late quartets’ always used to be a project that ensembles came to later in their development, rather than earlier. Yet already you are performing a number of these, as are a number of other young ensembles. How do you explain this current trend?
Dover Quartet: Part of this is just that everything these days is moving faster, and not just in music education. Everyone is starting earlier on repertoire, so one gets to advanced pieces more quickly. When we studied with the Guarneri Quartet, they in fact recommended that we start with the late quartets and work backwards. That is the way they had done it themselves. This takes the fear out of playing the all the quartets and actually makes you take the earlier ones more seriously. The late quartets are also much more visible to everyone these days—they have now become almost standard repertoire. We thought nothing of it to read these scores when we studied at Curtis and we had access to so many recordings, too. When, for example, the Budapest Quartet played these quartets early on, they really were more specialist works, more of a question mark. I know there is still some prejudice against young ensembles performing these, but our perspective is simply that starting earlier gives you longer to live with them.
GN: How far have you proceeded on the complete cycle?
DQ: We have tried all of them. For the late quartets, we started with Op. 131, and have now performed Op. 135 in addition to the Op. 127 that we performed for you. We enjoy programming concerts that feature one each: early, middle and late.
GN: As you proceed through the cycle, can you really feel the difference in style as Beethoven moved towards his final statements?
DQ: Beethoven was one of the composers who probably cared least about what others thought about his compositions, and right from his early days. But as we move out of the Razumovsky quartets, we see an even more radical removal from—or obliviousness to—what others might say or think. By the time we reach the eleventh quartet (Op. 95), the composer says exactly what he wants, no more, no less. The writing is so terse and to the point. Here we also see his emotional use of the fugue which hints at its even more profound treatment in Op. 131.
GN: You were stunning winners at the Banff competition last year, and today you played the same work by Vivian Fung that you did there. What do you think is the difference between performing the piece in a normal concert, like today’s, and under competition pressure?
DQ: In some ways, you are probably more ‘zoned in’ at a competition. You are also aware that judges will look much more at objective aspects of your playing, rather than subjective, emotional ones. Accordingly, you have less scope for individual idiosyncrasy. You focus more on the group’s output as a whole, as a collaborative effort to illustrate the ‘art of the string quartet’. At the same time, competition brings out everyone’s own personal psychological battles with themselves. These are much more in play than at a normal concert. We have had to approach each competition from the perspective of representing ourselves as best we can, no matter who is judging us and who our competitors are. But it is likely that, if we do not know the predispositions of the judges, we will subconsciously play safer than otherwise. At a normal concert, we can generally be freer and more individual but, funnily, we can also lose our focus and become distracted more easily.
GN: To me, the things that readily stand out about your playing are the clarity and balance in your tonal blend, the individuality of the separate voices, and your very judicious choice of tempos. Did all this come about naturally or is it a consequence of a great deal of experimentation and hard work? What are some of the techniques you used to get these results?
DQ: These are some of the dimensions that we have been especially conscious of. Some young quartets want to produce a very homogeneous, blended sound, but we aim for a more differentiated texture. With a homogeneous output, you can only change your sound by changing volume, which is needlessly restrictive. We do use sound profiling which gives us a 3-D representation of our exact output. But we also have some simple rules: for example, in a situation where two equally important motifs intertwine, the bowing of the instrument carrying one theme cannot be the same as those playing the other. If one instrument is digging in, the others will do something different, and vice versa. That is what allows transparency. I don’t think this came particularly naturally to us; we had to work pretty hard at it.
GN: And what about tempo choice?
DQ: Again, many young quartets are tempted to establish tempos by the way their members ‘feel’ the music. And, if you let each instrumentalist free scope here, you can end up with ten different tempos within a movement. We aim for simplicity. With some experimenting, we try to find a simple and consistent tempo structure that allows all of us to fit our own contributions into what we think reflects the natural motion of the work.
GN: Your playing interestingly seems to combine some of the technical address and attack of famous American string quartets with some of the warmth and emotional quality of European ensembles. Which American and European quartets actually influenced you the most?
DQ: Our training comes predominantly from two American quartets that have mentored us: the Guarneri and the Vermeer. While we have always admired the Alban Berg Quartet, the seeming European influence probably comes from the Vermeer which, though based here, has a very European sound. We learned a great deal from their leader, Shmuel Ashkenazy.
GN: It is well-known that your name, the Dover Quartet, honours Samuel Barber’s work Dover Beach, the composer being an alumnus of the Curtis Institute where you studied. I also know you love playing his String Quartet No. 1. Does this suggest that one of your burning interests is in modern American works?
DQ: We really are really so moved by the Barber, and the Adagio is always with us. We are very interested in playing some other modern American works eventually. Right now, however, we are still seeking to educate ourselves in the best way, and that means ‘play everything’.
GN: The concert you gave for us was a rare morning concert. How did you feel, playing at that hour?
DQ: Actually, it was much harder! When you have a whole day to think about and emotionally prepare for a performance, a lot has been achieved before you go on stage. When you get up and, bang, you are performing, you are not nearly as mentally settled. And while we all love coffee, to save your nerves, you certainly don’t want too much of it under these circumstances.
Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com