Guest Bloggers: Quartetutopia by Nicholas Kitchen

[Nick Kitchen is the founding first violinist of the Borromeo Quartet, ensemble in residence at NEC.

The Borromeo String Quartet

In addition to receiving the Artist Diploma from NEC, the quartet has gone on to win the 2007 Avery Fisher Career Grant, Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award (2001), and the Cleveland Quartet Award (1998), and to serve as Ensemble-in-Residence for National Public Radio’s Performance Today (1998-99). Besides being a wonderful performer and teacher, Nick is also a formidable early adopter of technology and an indefatigable entrepreneur. Under his leadership, the Borromeos have become probably the first (and only?) string quartet to perform using laptops, from which they can read the full score—not just their individual parts—and advance the “pages” with foot pedals. The quartet also records all its concerts—both video and audio—and has offered for sale these Living Archive recordings through its website. Because he is such a well-spring of creative ideas, I asked Nick to write a guest blog entry talking about entrepreneurship for the musician. You will find it inspiring! –Tony Woodcock ]

What is the simplest kit for transcendental artistic fulfillment?
Well, there’s looking into the glowing green of a stream in Yosemite National Park,
or…
the String Quartet.

Anyone who has experienced playing in a quartet notices very soon that as long as you have, one Cello, one Viola, two Violins, four bows, at least one chair and some means of four people seeing the score, you have a complete vehicle for exploring and recreating a vast and startlingly inspiring musical literature..  With a little clef-transposition, you can even venture into the contrapuntal vocal music that built the compositional dynamo that became Western Art Music. And you can do all that with the outrageously spare resources mentioned at the beginning of this paragraph.  In today’s world the obstacles of procuring printed scores have even mostly disappeared.  At a site like www.imslp.org, with a computer and a printer or a monitor and page-turning foot pedal, you can be playing almost anything you wish within a few minutes.  If you are performing from a computer, I might add, you will need some power for the computer, but you won’t need to turn on the light.

Well, I would say the satisfactions of playing in a string quartet have been noticed.  Today, there may be  more virtuoso-level string quartets than ever in history.  And anyone who has listened to quartets over several decades has probably had the pleasurable realization  that there is a tidal rise in the standards of string quartet playing.  It is inspiring.

So, a forest of artistic richness is growing around us in the form of string quartets.  Wonderful, right?

Yes, but in the forest each tree has its place, and that tree supports many life forms from huge vines to tiny insects to entities we can’t even see.   Although trees may grow where the seed falls, we as teachers and artists of all ages have a lot of choices regarding where to plant our tree and where we will encourage our students to plant theirs.  And I often wonder if we unwittingly tend to plant all of our trees in the same spot.  Instead, I would love to look at how we can expand  the forest, make our goals more local, and in so doing have more impact on more people.  Maybe doing this we can both effectively sustain ourselves and significantly alter the cultural drought we all feel we are fighting.

A uniquely powerful vehicle for doing this could be the string quartet.  With its self-sufficiency, overwhelmingly rich repertory,  and modest economic footprint, it is, I think, the ideal tool for reaching more people with great music, and having a great time doing so.  With a string quartet you can give as many concerts as the community shows interest in, with virtually no setup cost or administrative burden.

It is one thing for individual students to make their way into a community, look for performing opportunities and students, and hope that their careers come together.  This sometimes turns out fine. But sustaining a regular schedule of concerts performed at a consistently high artistic standard may prove difficult.  This model can work, but is probably less reliable than the concerted, ongoing practice and progress of a string quartet.

Myself, I have witnessed a lot of local music making.  Both of my parents are hosts of local music establishments.  My father has been organist and choir-master at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Durham, NC since before I was born, and my mother founded a music program called the Duke University String School about the year I was born, way back in 1966!

Duke University String School Orchestra, Dorothy Kitchen, Conductor, Alexander Scurtu, soloist in Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2.

At first the string school was just an independent entity that grew out of my mother’s teaching at the YMCA, but soon there was the opportunity to join with Duke University and conduct lessons and rehearsals in the Duke Music Department facilities on Saturdays.  My mother’s school has had a steady enrollment of about 300 students for as long as I can remember and boasts one advanced orchestra, several intermediate ensembles, and a fairly extensive chamber music program.  Most parents are able to pay the modest tuition, but there are quite a few students who are given scholarships because the fees are beyond their means.  Out at St. Stephen’s, my father played for years on a mediocre electronic organ, but in 1977, funded by an inspired patron, the church was able to build a Flentrop three-manual tracker organ.  Since then the music program has expanded to include an orchestra, which, in turn, spun off to become the Orchestra of the Triangle. The church also offers an annual series of five or six concerts.  This is all icing on a cake of rich service music.  Currently, my father, in addition to playing, writes notes about the music each Sunday for the bulletin (a nice segue, I suppose, from teaching math at Duke University, a position from which he retired a short while ago).

Both of my parents’ music institutions enlist groups of people in performing live music every week.   In the school, the performances are viewed as a means of enhancing individual artistic development.  In the church, they offer the opportunity to enhance an individual’s inner wish to worship.

So, let’s think about local music-making.  Say a violinist and violist meet at NEC and are both from Missouri.  They know someone who could arrange concerts in a church near their hometowns.  They ask that person to let them present concerts in the church for $10 a ticket ($2 for the church, $2 for each player).  They invite another violinist they know to travel and join them and they know a recent conservatory graduate in Missouri who is a good cellist.  They all agree to play a series of six quartet concerts in two years at this church.  They start to communicate to local students and their teachers about their availability to coach chamber music and they invite as many people as they can to the concerts. They may be able to add a chamber music offering to already existing music education in the area.  They can invite local professionals and students to collaborate in a sextet or quintet or octet.

The resulting new friendships that are set in motion can result in good outcomes,  mixed with some failures.  But think what happens when these really first rate players tear into Beethoven Op. 95
Is there any limit to the artistic quality that can be achieved? None at all.  Will the audience be enthusiastic and want to come back?  I think so.  Will it be possible to suggest to young people that they should try playing Op. 95?  Probably at least one movement.  If the audience is really enthusiastic and they invite the ensemble to play another concert next week or give a presentation at someone’s company offices, can it happen?  Yes.  If a different church expresses interest in having a concert next month, can they do it?  Yes.  Does any of this interfere with the quartet’s efforts in other areas, perhaps applying for Chamber Music Two at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center or auditioning for Young Concert Artists?  Not at all.   In the string quartet you have a formidable musical entity that presents with full force the vivid masterpieces of western music (and all sorts of other music, too) and it is an organization that can turn on, and function on (!) a dime.

Get a good sound engineer and amplify the group to play in the city park like the bands of the past.  Add live music to a local theater production.  Play music underneath a silent film.  Play the Cavatina for a church’s Easter service. Get the local Library to support a concert series with explanation about the music.  See if the library could stream videos of the concert on its website. Where creativity and curiosity lead, there are extremely few limits on the quartet’s ability to try new things, and the next morning they can still hone in on some of the tougher intonation in the Haydn “Sunrise” Quartet.

There is a worry when I mention all of these projects that no one will pay for them.  Well, this is where I think the real flexibility of a string quartet comes into play.  If the quartet insists on a modest, mutually workable fee for many of the ideas I just mentioned, the players will be able to supplement these small resources with income from teaching, and that, I think (actually I know), can start to add up.  I have not even mentioned the chance to link up with larger local institutions such as universities where an ensemble can serve as Quartet-in-Residence.  It is natural that this might happen but better if it is built from the ground up by a group’s active engagement with the community.  Such a progression would lead to the healthiest combination of raw materials that will benefit the group and also the University.

The isolated ideas I am discussing are not new, but the equation-changer is utilizing the string quartet as a vehicle.  An individual could try to make the efforts I have just mentioned, but doing them alone is totally different than working with a steady group, where standards can be continually elevated and where fully realized masterpieces of music are within arms reach at any moment and in any situation.
You can play Beethoven Op. 131 ANYWHERE for ANYONE at a moment’s notice, or you can read or transcribe a song that a child just sang, or play the theme of Star Wars, or repeat a cell phone ringtone.  The last are gestures to bring music into contact with contemporary life, but two seconds later the group can blast into the last movement of Bartók No. 4, and I guarantee everyone in the room is in for a thrilling ride…

And consider that the group is self regulating.  Ensembles tend to pressure their members to aspire to ever higher standards and, though this can cause internal tension, it tends to work.  This quartet’s steady improvement then inspires all those around them and creates a virtuous cycle from which everyone can benefit.

So I am proposing that the string quartet is a fantastic cell of local musical production.  Having a professional quartet functioning, performing and teaching in a locality will inspire students, amateurs and listeners to get in on this very exciting action. It will also be musically fulfilling for the quartet.  Once again, for players and audience there is no limit to the musical quality that can be achieved.

Now, could a group fail to create this inspiration, fail to achieve the critical momentum to make this work?  Oh, yes!  And how!  Succeeding at what I am suggesting requires tireless work, unquenchable enthusiasm, fanatic persistence and selfless commitment.  But if Beethoven and Bach and Mozart and Haydn and Brahms and Bartók and Shostakovich and Schoenberg and Dvorak and Debussy and Schubert (I have to end the list somewhere) don’t inspire these qualities in a musician who has just studied at the Conservatory…  just think for a moment of the determination of Beethoven who, even at the moment he almost lost faith in the battle with his deafness, turned around to write music that changed the world.

Actually, I am not worried.  There are cases of failure in determination and inspiration, but not that many.  The determination and inspiration that gets most young musicians to NEC is not so fragile and I am sure it is the same at other conservatories.

And what I foresee is young musicians  going out in communities, not with a vague hope that something good MIGHT happen, but with the confidence  of knowing that the powerful self-sufficient cell of a string quartet can overcome ALL obstacles. These musicians can create great performances of some of the greatest music ever written, and this music can be made anywhere they choose to make it, simultaneously in places big and small.  How exciting and empowering!

And how many communities are there which might be open to this friendly invasion?

They are not even countable, and in every one of these places there are people who are curious and sincere seekers of learning.  There are adults who continue to educate themselves; parents of children who want to give their children learning of value; even that precocious entity of a child already determined to plumb the depths of musical meaning.

Quartetutopia.

And, by the way, what if a couple of town quartets get together to make an orchestra concert?  Why not!

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One Response to Guest Bloggers: Quartetutopia by Nicholas Kitchen

  1. Jeff B says:

    Great post! I think as musicians we all need to think outside the box. My wife is a violinist and I play percussion. I am always coming up with new ways to present music and share it…. I just need to act on these ideas. I think the creative forces that we use to make music can be used to create new ways to share it…

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