A sizeable audience, especially for a Wednesday evening, gathered in the chapel on Jan. 7 to hear the critically acclaimed and award-winning Ensō String Quartet. According to Classical Voice, this group comprises “one of the eminent string quartets of our era.”
Having this kind of accolade associated with the group certainly increased the buzz about them on campus and made listeners especially excited to hear this performance. Their repertoire and playing most certainly did not disappoint.
The first piece of the night was Franz Joseph Haydn’s “String Quartet Op. 76, No. 1 in G major” and it was clear from the second their bows touched their strings that this ensemble was incredibly attuned to itself and its members.
In moments of particular connection as a group, each member’s head moved forward, closer to the center of their group, as if to visually underscore the unity of their quartet and the unanimity of the musical direction they had taken. The dynamic contrast of this piece traveled beautifully from full, aggressive tones to light, gossamer moments.
The next piece on the program was introduced by their cellist, Richard Belcher, and was composed by Leoš Janáček. He explained the history and intentions of the piece “String Quartet No. 1,” “Kreutzer Sonata.” Written as a tribute to Leo Tolstoy’s short story “Kreutzer Sonata,” the quartet is supposed to render an “impression of the story” and all of its “dramatic and weird” elements.
Belcher asked violinist Maureen Nelson to demonstrate certain brief themes to listen for as signposts throughout the quartet, which I found particularly helpful, since the chaos of the piece might have been overwhelming without them.
The short story features a man sharing his story of romantic betrayal by his wife to strangers on a train, and the driving rhythm of the first movement reminds us of the mode of transportation. The second movement features string techniques that create an eerie effect and a sense of uneasiness, mirroring the man’s growing suspicions.
By the third movement, the man’s jealousy has grown and the intensity of the string quartet is palpable. The fourth movement breaks the tension in tragedy when the man discovers his wife with another man and murders her, and the feverish pizzicato present herein seemed to me to represent the final crumbling of the man’s love and trust.
After a brief intermission, the quartet returned, this time with an introduction from the second violinist, Ken Hamao. The second-to-last piece on the program was Giacomo Puccini’s “Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) for String Quartet,” and the audience learned that Puccini had written this masterpiece in one night during a rehearsal break for “Aïda” (from this, I gathered that procrastination really can pay off!).
The last piece of the program was Giuseppe Verdi’s “String Quartet in E Minor” and, in my opinion, really showcased the razor-sharp precision of the ensemble’s dynamic choices and the purity of their tone. The quiet murmurs in this piece were played to perfection, and I especially enjoyed the richness of tone from violist Melissa Reardon.
Once the concert had ended, the quartet was met with plentiful standing ovations, and the young group’s relaxed stage presence seemed to belie their already impressive history and their assertive playing. This quartet formed during their years at Yale and has been making a name for itself since 1999.
One of the many unique aspects of this concert is how it came to be. This evening of music, and the work it took to bring the Ensō String Quartet to our campus, was curated by Michelle Farrand and served as her Senior Experience as preparation for a career in music administration.
When asked about the process before the concert, Farrand said, “I think the most exciting thing was the fact that this was a real-life experience. A lot of what we do at Lawrence remains in the campus bubble, but this project allowed me to work with real managing companies and artists to create a very professional concert and series of events.”
This quartet was selected not only because of their talent, but also because Farrand wanted to bring in a group that could show Lawrence students what they could be capable of.
“We’re told so often that music isn’t a substantial way to make a living, and Ensō is living proof that this isn’t true, even so soon after graduating,” said Farrand.
“Additionally, I am incredibly grateful that I was never treated by the management or artists as if I was a student who was just creating some project—they really treated me as they would anyone else and took every single part of my project very seriously,” said Farrand.
Regarding the performers themselves, Farrand said, “I also couldn’t have asked for more down-to-earth, pleasant and gracious artists, Ensō were fantastic to be around and one of my only regrets from the experience is that I couldn’t spend more time actually talking to them!”
This creative Senior Experience clearly required an incredible amount of preparation, organization, effort and skill in order to navigate the lengthy and often complicated process of putting on a classical concert, but thanks to Farrand, the audience could sit back and enjoy the show.