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The Fifth Chair

A visit with Esterhàzy Quartet Faculty Ensembles in Residence, School of Music

Published: - Topics: Esterhàzy Quartet violin viola string quartet
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By Darcy Holtgrave

A person attending a string quartet expects to see four chairs—two for the violins, one each for the viola and cello. According to the Esterhàzy Quartet, though, there is also a fifth chair. This chair, an invisible but felt presence, is called into being by the synergy of the sounds of four instruments and the efforts of four musicians whose skill, dedication, and connectedness make the music possible. The Esterhàzy Quartet, the University of Missouri’s String Quartet-In-Residence brings this “composite voice” alive in their performing and teaching on the Mizzou campus and across the globe.

The members of the Esterhàzy Quartet—Eva Szekely, violin, Susan Jensen, violin, Leslie Perna, viola, and Darry Dolezal, cello—have a special appointment on campus wherein they divide their time between teaching at the School of Music and rehearsing and performing as the Quartet. This arrangement was officially established in the Department of Music in 1968, though Szekely, who has been with the Quartet the longest, reports that the Esterhàzy Quartet had been unofficially performing some time before that.

The very name of the group resonates with a history of fostering the arts. In the 1700’s, the famous Esterhàzy court of Austria was a patron of Franz Joseph Haydn, who penned over 80 string quartets and is perhaps the most well known classical composer of the form. Hadyn’s official court appointment allowed the composer the needed time and resources to work, and Darry Dolezal observes that the Quartet occupies a similar situation here at the University of Missouri, where having a protected space of time and resources fosters the creative spirit.

With that time, the group is able to put in what Perna characterizes as “the hours and hours and hours it takes not only to learn your own part, but to learn the music together.” Learning the music together means reaching an agreement between all four members of the group; Dolezal says, “It works on a consensus model, so we have to have absolute unanimous approval of every idea; otherwise it simply won’t work.” The rigor required to achieve this model is part of the attraction. “I like how intense the work is,” Jensen says, “how everybody brings their ideas with 100% vigor and then you have to get in there and duke it out.” The rewards are evident—“By the time we hone it and craft it, it is more powerful than anything any one of us would come up with, and that creates a special energy,” Dolezal says.

The Quartet’s rehearsing and touring schedule puts them on stage from local performances in Mizzou’s own Whitmore Recital Hall to concert venues in South America and Europe. They often travel to Brazil, for example, where they participate in an exchange programs with the Carlos Gomes Conservatory, the State University of Pará, and the University of Londrina. The School of Music’s website lists several of the Esterhàzy Quartet’s touring locations, including “the Mozarteum in Buenos Aires, the Beethoven Society in Santiago de Chile, the Haydn Festspiele in Austria and the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada,” along with festivals and other venues where they have appeared.

As an actively-touring string ensemble, they offer a great deal to their students beyond technical and theoretical education; they offer invaluable mentorship. Szekely says having a String Quartet-In-Residence on this campus allows students to “actually see in action what it is that they are being taught to do.” Leslie Perna also observes, “Without doing it ourselves, I don’t think we would be very effective teachers anyway.” The group works to impress upon their students the power of rehearsal to gain an intimate familiarity with, and trust in, the other members of the group.

True to the collaborative nature of the art form, the members of the Quartet have formed close relationships with composers writing for the repertoire today. The much-venerated Samuel Adler, composer, Julliard faculty member, and author of a seminal text on orchestration, created his 9th string quartet by the Esterhàzy Quartet’s commission. Jensen says, “The commission is not only bringing something new and continuing the genre, but it’s also sort of exalting this really beautiful connection that we find with people.”

Collaborating with modern composers presents the opportunity of working with the creator directly to clarify interpretation and offer feedback. Dolezal said, “Samuel Adler came and we thought we were doing exactly what was on the page, and he said no, no, no we need completely different bow strokes, and so we modified and it was beautiful. A lot of times we’ll suggest something the composer hadn’t thought of and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I love that, let’s do it that way.’”

The Quartet also works with composers at the beginning of their careers during a weeklong residence at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Composition students there compete for the opportunity to have their work performed and critiqued by the Quartet. Dolezal says, “We play the piece and we invite the young composer up and say, ‘Well, this didn’t make sense to us, and so we tried it this way, and was this the effect you wanted?’ And we go back and forth.” Szekely continues, “After our discussions we get a chance to play their piece again with the changes that were discussed so they get two different versions of it.”

20th and 21st century chamber music is sometimes perceived as “elusive” by audiences, Jensen observes, though she adds that people often are exposed to new instrumental music in music scores for movies, for example. Asked how she and her colleagues sometimes work to promote new music, Jensen says, “I think that if we can just engage the audience a little bit in a number of different ways, it makes it a lot more accessible.” Inviting a composer on stage to talk about her piece or giving a pre-concert lecture on themes to listen for can be helpful; what seems most important is giving the audience a personal connection to the music.

The appeal of the string quartet has a great deal to do with the repertoire and what that repertoire can create. Jensen observes, “The repertoire itself is unlike any other body of work, and it’s extremely compelling, it’s extremely expressive” and the sound is “infinite, depending on who the composer is, who the players are, what the venue is, it’s always changing a little bit…” Part of the challenge of writing for this group, Szekely states, is that writing for the string quartet requires “the most crystallized, economic expression,” Dolezal adds: “There’s probably no finer statement of the best in humanity than is written in some of these string quartets. I don’t think you’ll find any greater or more eloquent artistic statements anywhere.”

The Esterhàzy Quartet works hard to do this repertoire justice bringing to life the composite “fifth voice” of the string quartet. With dual roles, these performers and educators deeply move their own audiences and teach new generations of musicians how to do the same.