Meet the Arneis Quartet!

The Arneis Quartet celebrates their fifth anniversary this season with appearances on the Alcyon, Emmanuel Music, and Winsor Music Chamber Series, where they will perform on the March 23 concert at the Visiting Nurse Assisted Living Community, one of the first concerts to combine a traditional concert series with a musical outreach program. Widely regarded as one of the finest emerging quartets of their generation, the Arneis was hand-picked by the St. Lawrence String Quartet for its inaugural John Lad Prize, received a fellowship at the Aspen Center for Advanced String Quartet Studies for the summer of 2012, and acted as the 2011 Young Artist Fellows for the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music. The musicians of the Arneis Quartet — named after the Arneis grape, a varietal that is difficult to grow, but which yields an exquisite white wine — are on the faculties of Boston University, Brookline Public Schools, the Chestnut Hill School, and act as coaches for the Boston Youth Symphony Orchestras. 

Photo by Liz Linder

Photo by Liz Linder

Heather Braun, violin (HB); Rose Drucker, violin (RD); Daniel Doña, viola (DD); Agnes Kim, cello (AK); very generously gave some rehearsal time to speak with us about the origins of the quartet, their favorite moments in the music for the March 23 concert, and why they love performing on outreach concerts. 

What brought you guys together?

DD: The idea of the quartet started as my doctoral chamber recital. I had always loved playing quartets and I wanted to put a serious quartet program together so I asked Rose — we’d been playing together since grad school in 2003, so more than 10 years — and we got a quartet together, which was originally Rose, me and two others. That was the first iteration of the Arneis Quartet. We did well, we went to festivals, and then the other two moved or didn’t want to continue, so we found Heather and Agnes, and we’ve been together ever since! 

HB: Something that’s really nice is that we’re all BU [Boston University] alumni; Rose and I both studied with Peter Zazofsky, and we all studied chamber music with the Muir  Quartet, who are in residence at BU, and we all went to graduate school here as well. We’re all coming from the same ideas and influences, using our graduate studies, so it seemed like a really good fit. 

I saw on your website that you got your name from the Arneis grape, and I’m wondering if there was a story behind that selection.

RD: It’s a wine grape, and we like all things that have parallels between wine-growing and music-making, and this grape particularly was almost extinct, not being cultivated very much. It was saved and became a specialty kind of wine. It’s a white wine, from the Piedmont area of Italy. It’s a kind of funky, interesting wine, and you don’t see it around very often, but it’s delicious! We liked the idea  of cultivating something — we feel like chamber music is something you cultivate — and the growing of the grapes is a good metaphor, too… and also we just like to drink wine! Finding a name for a group is one of the harder things [about having a chamber group]… rehearsing is easy compared to coming up with a name! It resonated with us: the background of growing, cultivating, and enjoying special and unique, like with music!

DD: The name also translates as “little rascal,” so sort of mischievous...

RD: Right, it’s a difficult grape to grow, so the name is a slang word that sort of means rascally, or something difficult, and cheeky. We liked that playfulness.

DD: The four of us have our cheeky moments in rehearsal, which is after the fact, but it’s still a perfect fit.

RD: It worked out!

How did you get connected to Peggy and Winsor Music?

RD: Heather and I have been playing at Emmanuel Music for a long time, so we know Peggy from there, and also from freelancing in Boston, she’s wonderful, an oboist extraordinaire. So we’ve played with her in lots of different orchestras, and Heather and I have both played as individuals on Winsor Music chamber concerts. 

HB: Last summer, she needed somebody to play at the VNA for the June outreach concert. It was a very last-minute thing, and she said “Can you guys come and do this?” and I said, “Yeah, actually, we can!” So we just made it work, and it seemed to go really well. We really loved doing it, and we really like being there. We do a lot of outreach; we play at Newbridge on the Charles, and we do string quartet presentations for the Community Connections program at Emmanuel Music, playing at Boston Arts Academy and other schools. It just seemed like a good fit, and the first time was a success, and we have returned a few times. Peggy eventually asked us if we wanted to play this upcoming concert, which was really exciting! It’s the first concert of the series at the VNA, which is so great!

Photo by Eugenia Chung

Photo by Eugenia Chung

Have you done anything like this before as a quartet, where you’ve combined an outreach event with a concert series, or a more widely advertised concert?

HB: When we play at Newbridge on the Charles, it’s not advertised the same way as Winsor is advertising this one, but it is the same idea. Families of the residents who live there come to the concerts. The last concert we had there in January was maybe the most well-attended concert we’ve done at that venue, there were a lot of people there. I feel like the more we play there, the more people hear about us and then come to the next concert. It’s a full concert program but we also talk a little about the music and then we play. It’s the same kind of idea as Winsor. Last year we did a lot of concerts at Windham Terrace, which is in Windham, New Hampshire, which is also an assisted living community. It’s something we’re really comfortable doing — we’ve done it in four different places at this point, including an assisted living home in Italy! — and we really enjoy it! 

DD: A few years ago, we played on the Stanford University Concert Series, and they set up a bunch of outreach programs at schools and assisted living facilities as well. We’ve been doing this for quite a few years, and we love it. Sometimes we find that our greatest musical moments happen at this kind of concert, because the audience is sometimes a lot more receptive, and we can take risks; it’s a pretty awesome experience. 

HB: They’re there just to listen, there’s no judgement happening, and we’re easier on ourselves, which makes it easier to play.

RD: A lot of times we’ll find things in those performances — especially if we’re doing an educational kids concert, when we’re trying to find out what’s going on in the music and we talk about a lot of the concepts, and we bring things together for the kids — then the next time we play that piece, we find we have a whole new fresh set of ideas and things can really come out in our concerts that we’ve discovered during these outreach concerts. We’ve done a lot of different events. We pretty much say yes to everything and then do it, so it’s given us a lot of great opportunities for different venues and different audiences. 

You’ve played several times at the VNA, and I’m wondering if there’s anything you in particular that you enjoy about it as a venue. I know from my personal experience that it’s a great room to perform in, and the audience is so responsive.

RD: All of those things! We like the sound of the room  and the audience is great. We’ve had repeat audience members who remember us, and we like to talk to them afterwards. Everyone seems to enjoy it. It’s a fun thing to do, for sure.

HB I like the atmosphere that Peggy creates for the concerts, too. She’s always there, and she will sometimes have a back and forth with us. We’ll talk about the piece, and then she’ll ask us a question, or ask us to explain more clearly. 

RD: There’s a personal touch.

HB: Right, which is nice, because since she knows us, she feels able to do that. I wish that would happen more often, that people would ask us questions in an open forum. We’re already breaking down the barrier of the audience and performers by having people talk so much more in concerts now than they used to, but I like that back and forth, question and answer stuff. That doesn’t really happen at our other concerts, if we talk to people it’s much more one-on-one. The nice thing about having Peggy there at the VNA with us is there’s this nice dialogue. It’s fun for us and I think the people who are there enjoy it too. The space there is also really nice, and I really like the cookies...

You’re playing Beethoven’s Op. 132 on March 23. It’s said to be reflective of his experiences as a convalescent, and I’m wondering if you find that narrative captures the quartet for you, or if you feel that there are other influences or stories happening throughout the piece.

RD: That’s definitely going on specifically in the third movement. It’s a prayerful song of thanksgiving interrupted by these bursts of feeling better. That storyline is definitely present in the third movement. The outer movements of the piece show where the late Beethoven quartets were going. You can see counterpoint getting really complicated but also really simple and these motives that play together; it’s very much the late Beethoven style all in one piece. The story of the convalescence… I don’t know how much that has to do with how much we like the piece… I think we just resonate with the piece because it’s amazing. It’s this picture into Beethoven’s mind as he was dealing with the end of his life. With the late quartets you can’t help but think that these were the last pieces he was writing after all of the other amazing work that he had done. He came back to some simpler forms but also got really out there, really creative. We think of Beethoven as being a firmly classical composer, but he did some wild things, especially in this piece.

DD: This is the first quartet he wrote that broke the mold of four movements. He was starting to say, “Ok, it’s been like this, Haydn set it this way, I’ve done it this way all my career,” and then here he decides to write something that’s in five movements, even though we debate that it’s actually four movements with a little intro, but… he labeled it as five. It’s a lot of really exciting work. For me, thinking that he had this illness and he was healed gives the third movement a special weight. He’s definitely being very spiritual in that movement, it’s hard not to be affected by that.

HB: I think all of the late Beethoven quartets have this sort of spiritual undertone. To me, every one of the late quartets has a movement where he is talking to God and taking stock of his life. This was his way of talking through things at the end of his life. The third movement in 132 is actually kind of random in terms of the piece as a whole: the first movement is so stormy, and the last movement is so stormy, and the second movement is very pastoral, it’s almost like something Mozart would have written if he had lived another thirty years.

DD: In a lot of ways, he’s looking backwards. In that movement, he’s looking back to Mozart’s simplicity. In the third movement, he writes it in the Lydian mode, which is looking back even further. He’s looking forward and back.

RD: There’s a tension there, looking at the history that has brought us to this point, and then launching us forward, too. 

HB: Every one of the late Beethoven quartets has a slow movement that sets the pace for the whole piece. They’re the centerpiece for everything.

In answering my last question, you gave us a lot to listen for, but I’m also wondering if each of you could pick out a particular moment in the piece that you want the audience to listen for and experience with you.

RD: The whole third movement, it’s definitely the centerpiece of the quartet, you can’t miss it. The whole tone shifts, and time stops. It’s my favorite part. It has this timeless quality. I do like the storminess and turbulence of the first and last movements — HB: It’s very Beethoven. — RD: Yes, the stormy seas feeling, I definitely like that, too. And there is a surprise opera moment where the first violin delivers an accompanied recitative before we go into the last movement. 

AK: Also, as a cellist, I want to point out that usually in a string quartet, the cello plays the bass line, but in this piece, he breaks that rule and I get to play a high melody with the violin while Dan plays the bass line. — DD: Yay! — AK: Throughout this piece, you can find that it’s not just one person playing the whole phrase, it’s combined, so we switch off. We try to rehearse and make that sound like one instrument, not four different instruments in the phrase.

HB: I would definitely say that people should listen for the end of the last movement, where the first violin and the cello are playing the melody together. For me, it’s high but it’s not that crazy, but for the cello, it’s really crazy high for her. It’s really unique, it’s unusual for that time. When the cello is up that high, it’s a very unsteady feeling… — RD: Almost desperation. — HB: A little bit! It’s definitely something to listen for. 

RD: I liked Agnes’ point about the fragmented melody lines, where one instrument might play a few notes, it gets passed around the whole quartet. That kind of fragmentation is fun for us to work on and I think interesting to listen to. 

DD: In general, especially with this quartet, and in a lot of Beethoven, being aware of what he’s setting you up for and what you expect to hear, then hearing the curveballs. Getting that can really add to your listening experience. You don’t have to know anything about theory, you just listen with open ears and think, “Ok, I expect this to happen,” and then Beethoven throws you these curveballs all over the place. Be open to being surprised.

Photo by Eugenia Chung

Photo by Eugenia Chung

How did you choose the Wallace quartet pale reflections...? Have you played much of his music before? Do you have a relationship with him as a quartet?

RD: Yes to all of those.

HB: John Wallace is a composer here at Boston University, and about this time last year he approached us and said “I’d like to produce and release a CD of some of my chamber music, would you guys be interested?” He wanted to do this quartet, his piano quintet, and a piece for string trio, bassoon and flute. We started working on his music over the summer, and the recording project was scheduled for the end of September. As we started working on this quartet, we realized that this fits a great need in our repertoire: something contemporary and American by somebody we know, and we like it, and it’s about six minutes long. So often when we’re programming for library concerts or outreach concerts, we need something contrasting and short to go with the long and expansive pieces. We’ve been playing it a lot this season and we’ll continue to play it because we really like the piece, we find it very interesting. It’s really different, it’s maybe not the easiest thing for some audiences to hear for the first time; if they heard it a lot, they would be really into it. It’s going to be shocking for some people, but it’s great, because it’s shocking, and then it’s over. It’s so short! It’s a really great introduction to contemporary music for people who haven’t heard it before. It fits that niche perfectly. We know John Wallace, and we’ve been working with him for about a year on this music. The CD will come out soon.

DD: It’s in the final editing process.

HB: Peggy said, “Can you play something short, American, and contemporary?” and we said — everyone chimes in unanimously — All: YES! — HB: If people want to know what it’s like, it’s a lot like the quartet music of Berg, or Webern, where there are a lot of really short compact ideas that are kind of interspersed throughout every part randomly and unexpectedly.

RD: We like to talk a lot about gestures, instead of a melody or a tune, there’s a gesture, an idea that’s expressed through a shape or a kind of sound. There’s a lot of passing around of the gestures in smallish fragments. I think it’s pretty interesting to listen to, all knit together. And as Heather said, if you don’t like it, it’s over quickly!

HB: It’s a really good introduction for people who haven’t heard this music before. If you’ve been going to Winsor concerts for a while, it’s going to sound fresh and original, but it won’t be shocking.

AK: This piece doesn’t contain a nice conventional melody, but it’s very emotional, which is what I like about it. With a lot of contemporary music, it’s interesting and new, but it’s lacking emotionally. This is a very emotional piece, so I think people will like it.

RD: I think that’s a big part of why we like it, too. We don’t have a big affinity for purely intellectual music. I think all of us like to be expressive.

DD: Yes. And when we were working with him on the piece, we were learning the nuts and bolts of it, and trying to get it all together, but he was always stressing that it needed to be expressive. Having the freedom from the composer to do that really helped the piece to resonate with our aesthetic. 

Do you have any idea where the title of the piece came from?

RD: It’s nighttime music. There are moon shadows, and it all has to do with night. It goes from dusk until dawn. The first movement is night falling, the next one is the moon, and then sunrise, and dawn. It’s darkness and night music and scurrying. There are some scary things and nice things, in a dream sense. 

As with the Beethoven, if you could each pick out a thread that you would really want people to latch on to, what would you choose for this piece?

HB: There are a lot of extended techniques, by which we mean that we use our bow or our left hands in ways that are not normal or traditional. So instead of a regular pizzicato, where we pluck the string, he’ll use something called a Bartók pizz, which is where the string is rebounding off of the fingerboard, so we’re lifting the string instead of plucking the string, so it has a snap sound. It’s technically called a snap pizzicato, but it’s something that Bartók uses a lot, so that’s the common name for it.

RD: Yes, listen for the sound effects, different things we do with our bows: tremolos, slides, colors and effects that create an atmosphere, as opposed to just drawing our bows across the strings like we do in the Beethoven. There are lots of other ways that we can create sounds. It’s very organic, the way that he uses those effects to weave a texture. Definitely listen for those sound effects and special colors.

DD: Performing those sounds can be really tricky!

HB: And the silences, listen for the silences. Especially at the end of the last music, where it’s very suspended. Silence is a part of the piece as a whole. 

AK: Listen for the emotional moments. The emotional changes happen so quickly. There will be this blast of emotion and then silence. Also, listen for the quartet’s sound as a whole, on the score itself, it looks like the individual line does not have to do with the other parts, but all together, it creates such a great block of sounds and tones.