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IU Jacobs School of Music string quartets triumph with `leaderless cooperation?

May 29, 2015 

Pacifica Quartet

Pacifica Quartet

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Leaderless cooperation. That’s how Sibbi Bernhardsson, violinist in the world-renowned Pacifica Quartet, quartet-in-residence at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, distills the string quartet experience.

When four completely different people—often with different nationalities, native languages and perspectives—join in a common goal of unified interpretation, a fascinating synthesis begins.

“It requires 100 percent cooperation and collaboration,” said Bernhardsson. “All four members have to become one unified body and be extremely convinced how they want things to sound while being exceptionally flexible. It’s a very delicate process and very valuable not only on a musical level, but on a human level.”

Comprising one of the most successful and respected quartets in the world, members of Pacifica are experts in this ever-evolving dynamic and the perfect teachers of the next generation of great chamber music ensembles.

Since Bernhardsson and fellow members Simin Ganatra, violin, Masumi Per Rostad, viola, and Brandon Vamos, cello, joined the faculty at the Jacobs School of Music in fall 2012, the school's  student string quartet program has exploded, with 2014-15 marking the first official year of the Performer Diploma Chamber Music degree.

“We are working with players of the highest level, preparing the quartet that has the potential to make it as a professional quartet in the 21st century,” said Bernhardsson. “We’re helping them to find their own voice, be entrepreneurial and find a way to make it in an incredibly competitive field and ever-changing music landscape.”

Apparently, Pacifica is achieving its goal; the two inaugural quartets in the program, Verona and Zorá, have been tearing up the competition.

Verona Quartet

Verona Quartet

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This past March, the Verona Quartet (Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violins, Abigail Rojansky, viola, and Warren Hagerty, cello) won the Silver Medal and the ProQuartet-CEMC Prize at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition, widely considered to be “the” most prestigious international, professional-level competition.

Formerly known as the Wasmuth Quartet, last year the group won the Alice Coleman Prize (Grand Prize) at the Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition and the Gold Medal Prize and the Audience Appreciation Award at the Chesapeake Chamber Music Competition. Also in 2014, the ensemble won the Bronze Medal at Japan’s Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.

Within just five months of its 2013 formation, Verona (then Wasmuth) won first prize at the Kuttner String Quartet Competition at the Jacobs School of Music and the Silver Medal in the senior division of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition—the largest chamber music competition in the world.

In addition, the members are strong proponents of music outreach and education, holding a residency in Danville, Ill., where they gave numerous recitals and helped develop young musicians’ skills. Every first grader in Danville now takes violin lessons.

Currently the graduate string quartet-in-residence at the Jacobs School, Verona will be the graduate string quartet-in-residence at Juilliard this fall.

“We cannot speak highly enough of our experience at the Jacobs School of Music and with the Pacifica Quartet,” said Ong. “The support we have received from the faculty has been overwhelming. I can speak for all of us when I say that being at the Jacobs School with Pacifica and working with all the faculty here has been a transformative experience.”

Meanwhile, the Zorá Quartet (Dechopol Kowintaweewat and Seula Lee, violins, Pablo Muñoz Salido, viola, and Zizai Ning, cello) has been blazing a trail of its own and is hot off an impressive win at the Fischoff Competition earlier this month. The group brought home the Grand Prize as well as the Gold Medal in the Senior String Division from this elite contest.

“Our experience in the Performer Diploma Chamber Music program at Jacobs has been a great success,” said Salido. “We also won the Grand Prize at the 2014 ENKOR Chamber Music Competition as well as the Coleman-Barstow Prize for Strings at the 2015 Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition. In addition, we have been admitted as quartet-in-residence in two of the most important chamber music festivals in the world: the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival in the U.S. and the Banff Centre in Canada, both of which take place this summer.

“The program is ideal for any young string quartet since it offers a flexible schedule that allows us to rehearse intensely, two or more coachings per week with the Pacifica Quartet and other members of the Jacobs faculty, a weekly string quartet seminar and weekly individual lessons.”

In addition to being named this year’s Jacobs Kuttner Quartet, the undergraduate Azalea Quartet (Jenna Barghouti and Joy Vucekovich, violins, Ben Wagner, viola, and Graham Cullen, cello) also won the Alice Coleman Prize (Grand Prize) at the 2015 Coleman Chamber Ensemble Competition, following in Verona’s footsteps.

Barghouti said the members of Pacifica are not just their coaches, but their mentors and role models as well. “Every member in Pacifica has something entirely different to offer; together they target every element of string quartet playing at the highest level. Their incredible energy and timeless musical knowledge has nurtured us for the past two years, and we would not be where we are today without them.

“The quartet experience has encouraged each of us to discover our inner artistry and musicianship. Playing with three other people on a regular basis holds one to an extremely high standard; the expectation of every member is constantly increasing. In order for the quartet to keep growing and improving, individual improvement is key, so every quartet member is really also a soloist.”

Azalea Quartet

Azalea Quartet 

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For each of the past three years, these student groups have taken turns as string quartet-in-residence at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany, where they performed and studied quartet literature with pre-eminent scholars.

In addition to numerous other opportunities, a Bloomington off-campus concert series was created to showcase the school’s 30-plus string quartets, and plans include expanding to neighboring communities as well.

The program also partnered with the Jacobs Composition Department this year, matching eight student quartets with eight student composers, each charged with writing a five-minute quartet. “It was extremely successful,” said Bernhardsson. “It gave both performers and composers a chance to see into each other’s worlds and creative processes."

Bernhardsson added that the next goal is the ability to advertise internationally for a fully funded graduate quartet position for two years. “The group would serve as a valuable role model plus represent the school outside of Bloomington as great ambassadors and recruiters," he said. "Jacobs is very large, so everything is possible here.”

“The Pacifica Quartet members are the spiritual leaders of the Jacobs School’s destination chamber music program,” said Steve Wyrczynski, chair of the Jacobs String Department. “Jacobs has a wealth of talented students because of its renowned faculty, and Pacifica is cultivating the top students into highly successful quartets on the international scene.”

“The most rewarding thing for me and the other members of Azalea about string quartet playing is when all the pieces somehow come together after hours and hours of hard work,” said Barghouti. “To be able to say you’ve accomplished something because of individual and group efforts is the best feeling in the world!”

“Four musicians who must reach a final interpretive decision that everyone feels identified with is, without a doubt, the most exhausting aspect of string quartet life,” said Salido. “But it is also one of the most fascinating, considering this continuous debate produces a constant artistic and intellectual evolution, both individual and collective. The quartet offers a perfect balance between personal fulfillment and the satisfaction of team work.”

The string quartet experience at the Jacobs School of Music is proof that the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts. Or as Wyrczynski said, “The quartet is greater than its members.”

NOTE: The Verona Quartet will perform at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, June 23, in Auer Hall as part of the Jacobs School’s Summer Music series. The concert will be broadcast live on WFIU Public Radio.

The Pacifica Quartet will also perform as part of the series—at 8 p.m. on Monday, July 13, in Auer Hall.

Tickets for Summer Music are available from the Musical Arts Center box office, (812) 855-7433, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, and online.