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Degas Quartet finds a niche in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts
Degas Quartet finds a niche in Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing ArtsFebruary 22, 2001Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
It?s mid-morning and the members of the Degas Quartet, Syracuse University?s newest quartet-in-residence, have just begun what will most likely turn into a four-hour practice session in the living room of the house they share on Westcott Street. The musicians patiently play the same eight measures over and over again as they work to breathe life into the notes on the page before them. No detail is left untouched–the location of their bows on the strings, the amount of bow they draw across the strings as they play the notes, the subtle pauses, and the gentle fading and swelling of sounds–as they interpret the composer?s intent for music he wrote long before these performers were born. This particular selection has a rather dark sound. ?It was written right after World War II when the horrors of war and the brutality of fascism weighed heavily on the composer?s mind,? says Zachary Koenig, the group?s cellist. Koenig, a native of Arkansas, and violinist Tamaki Higashi, a native of Japan, founded the Degas Quartet. The two met during the 1999 Bowdoin Summer Music Festival in Brunswick, Me. At the time, both were entering their final year of graduate school–Koenig at the University of Texas-Austin and Higashi at Mannes College of Music in New York City. They performed at Bowdoin in a quartet with two other musicians. The four hit it off so well that they decided to continue playing together. During the fall of 1999, the quartet was invited to perform at SU and subsequently was offered a two-year residency in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, beginning in the Fall 2000 semester, after the group?s members had completed their graduate school programs. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the young musicians: The residency would give them the support they needed to prepare a professional repertoire; an opportunity to study with SU faculty members and with the Manhattan-based Cassatt Quartet, SU?s professional quartet-in-residence; and experience in working with undergraduate students. However, by the end of the spring of 2000, two of the original members left the quartet. ?The intention to quartet music wasn?t equal among all of our original four members,? Higashi says. ?It was very difficult for Zach and me to believe that we would find two new members with an equal love for quartets in time to begin the residency.?
Higashi and Koenig started looking for recommendations and auditioning violists–a difficult task since Koenig was at the University of Texas and Higashi was in New York City. They eventually found violist Nancy Johnson, a native of England, who was finishing a master?s degree at the Juilliard School. But at the end of June, the group still lacked a second violinist, and they had less than two months to find someone. That?s when Johnson thought about James Dickenson, a violinist she had played with in quartets two years earlier while the two were students at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. She decided to give him a call. ?I hadn?t spoken to Nancy for more than a year,? Dickenson says. ?I was happily minding my own business, free-lancing in the London music scene, when out of the blue I got a message from Nancy asking me if I would come to America to play in a quartet. It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I called her back and said yes.? Dickenson arrived in Syracuse just two weeks before the group?s first concert, last September. His plane arrived in the evening, and the four barely had time to get acquainted before calling it a night. ?James got up the next morning and said, `Let?s play,? jet lag and all,? Johnson says. ?I came all this way. It seemed a shame to stay in bed,? Dickenson quips. The group?s first concert consisted of duets, played by Higashi and Koenig; then Johnson joined in for a few trios; and finally, the four played their first quartet in public. They presented a second concert later in the fall. Their third concert is Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. in the Rose and Jules R. Setnor Auditorium in Crouse College. ?These four, distinct individuals are developing genuine synergy and are growing exponentially as musicians,? says Fred Karpoff, associate professor of music, who has coached the quartet several times. ?Just last week, they really knocked my socks off with their Bartok. It was a new level of achievement and commitment, which I think bodes very well for their future together.? In addition to preparing for concerts, the musicians are preparing audition tapes for upcoming summer music festivals, and they play with the SU Symphony Orchestra and the Contemporary Music Ensemble, coach undergraduate students in chamber music, and teach private lessons. In between, they spend at least two hours a day in individual practice sessions. Johnson prefers practicing in the basement during the early morning hours. ?That way they can?t hear me, unless the vents are open,? she says. Higashi and Dickenson are night owls, and Koenig fits his sessions in whenever he can. ?We all took a chance,? Dickenson says. ?Tamaki, Nancy and Zach knew they could play well together. It was Nancy?s instinct that said I would fit in with them. I trusted their judgment, and here we are!”