An Interview with the Apple Hill String Quartet

Since its founding in 2007, the Apple Hill String Quartet has earned praise around the world for its concerts presenting interpretive mastery of traditional repertoire – including Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven, and Ravel – as well as for world premieres and commissioned pieces. As resident musicians at the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, the Quartet is featured in the summer concert series held every Tuesday night at the Center in Nelson, N.H. These concerts attract hundreds of visitors and have become a mainstay of the Monadnock area summer music offerings.

Winsor Music is delighted to welcome the musicians of the Quartet — Elise Kuder and Colleen Jennings, violin; Mike Kelley, viola; and Rupert Johnson, cello — to the Concert Series. They spoke with us before the first of three concerts with Peggy Pearson; the third concert will take place at St. Paul's Church in Brookline on Sunday, April 26th at 7:00pm. Tickets can be purchased in advance at a discount here.

What brought you together as a group?

Mike Kelley: Apple Hill as an organization has been around since the early ‘70s. Elise and I were both students there in the ‘80s at the summer camp. As the previous generation retired, we got brought on to be part of the resident ensemble. Rupert was actually a last-minute replacement to be a coach in the summertime. We went to school with Colleen at Oberlin: the small music world!

How did you get connected with Peggy and Winsor?

Elise Kuder: Lenny! Lenny and Apple Hill.

MK: Peggy was a coach at Apple Hill.

EK: When we were kids. Lenny and Peggy were at Emmanuel.

MK: And we also played at Emmanuel.

Did any of you coach with Peggy as kids?

EK: I coached with Moby [Peggy’s brother].

How do you adjust as a group when you’re working with guests like Peggy, or non-string instruments?

Rupert Johnson: Apple Hill is a place where we embrace folks from many different walks of life. So the concert of even adjusting- that’s just what we do at Apple Hill. Playing chamber music is the perfect way to get to know someone, and that someone can be playing a string instrument or not. The music requires that we come together and come to consensus on how we present this music. We find that music has a unique way of teaching us life lessons. Bringing in someone from the outside — we’re just sitting down with an old friend.

MK: And combining oboe with strings… Peggy makes it pretty. Peggy’s awesome.

EK: It’s really nice to get new perspectives. When you’re a group that works together a lot, of course you’re always trying to think of new things, and each piece brings a new perspective, but it’s always really nice to work with people who you don’t always work with, to get a fresh take on things.

What piece or pieces in your repertoire do you feel really represents you as a group?

MK: Part of our philosophy of programming is to have a new piece: either a commission or something that hasn’t been heard before; a piece that was written a while ago but isn’t heard enough: sort of a hidden gem; and an acknowledged masterpiece. This program is a good example of that, where the Haydn symphony is well known, but this is an arrangement for string quartet and oboe that was done by a contemporary of Haydn's that isn’t heard much, and a brand new work by Primosch that was written for Winsor Music, and then the Brahms, which is the apex of this repertoire for us. So this is a nice example of what we strive for as a group.

Colleen Jennings: Part of what we try to do when we travel is to discover pieces that might be relevant to the area where we’re going. So this summer, we learned a piece by a Turkish composer, Saygun, which was a complete novelty to all of us, and yet it defines us, because we’re one of the few groups that plays it, and has spent time getting to know it.

MK: And through Apple Hill’s Playing for Peace project, we go to the Middle East a lot. It’s funny, because the piece was new to us and everybody that we played it to in this country, but over there, it was like the Brahms is to us here; everybody knew it and knew him. That was really fun.

Could each of you pick out something in the Brahms that you really want the audience to share with you?

CJ: Something that’s coming to mind is the different textures. There’s a place in the first movement where you have a melody between the two violins that then becomes a melody between viola and violin. There are lots of places like that throughout the piece, but that stands out to me as something that the listener can grab on to. Brahms is so fun to play because the melodies are constantly bouncing from one instrument to the next and this also accounts for the many layers of texture.

EK: With the Brahms, there’s so much of this internal struggle, in a way, and it comes out in the different movements — sometimes a little more disturbed, and then sometimes the struggle alleviates or releases something. In the second movement, there’s such a beautiful tune in major that doesn’t seem like so much of a struggle, and the last movement is a total fiery release of that...

CJ: Or even the end of the first movement there’s all of this struggle and then there’s this giant push to the end.

EK: Yes. So I think just observing where all the push and pull, where all of the struggle and release is, and how does that make the audience member feel at the end?

MK: And in the same way, being at a live concert, seeing us play it and watching as well as listening: this is a place where he’s really experimenting with the different roles of the individual players. Like Elise said, at the beginning, there’s a place where we’re all playing together, but each one of us is doing their own thing, so we’re both in the same world and fighting for our own independence. It’s neat to see how that concept plays out in that movement but also throughout the whole piece.

EK: And the fighting is also sometimes negotiation or conversation, working out where the downbeats are, and playing off of each other. That’s true of Brahms more than most classical composers.

RJ: You’re in for a journey of searching constantly, throughout the whole piece. That’s a part of the Primosch as well; it has this searching quality throughout, and then when you get to the fifth movement, you’re searching and then you suddenly find something really joyful.

With the dialogue that you mentioned before, do you feel that you are four independent people or four parts of an internal struggle?

MK: You answer that question in different ways at different points in the piece. I think that’s a really fun thing about being able to be in the same room as the musicians playing it. You see us as four individuals playing our individual parts, but hopefully there are also these moments where it transcends that and becomes this one being, or other being, coming out of the center of the group. It’s fun to be dynamically in that with us.

Going back to the Primosch, Rupert, you mentioned that you find a journey in it?

RJ: Like the Brahms, but on a smaller scale — he chooses smaller movements to take you through this world, constantly trying to figure out where you are. There are moments where you feel like you’re completely at home. I find personally that he captures a very typical way of writing what might be parts of the American voices — a lot of jazz at the end that is obvious and tangible to listen to, and throughout, he’s constantly weaving many different emotions. That’s what my segue with the Brahms was about. Primosch has done it on a smaller level of time within the movements, but he’s created a huge world within a smaller space. To have this particular ensemble: the oboe, violin, viola and cello, it’s quite… orchestral, in a way. There are a lot of different flavors hitting you.

MK: I think he’s incredibly creative. He does an incredibly good job of writing music that is both really new and fresh and experimental sounding, and also really accessible, but never pandering to the audience. There’s a lot of drama, there’s a lot of humor, and then I feel like his writing, in terms of the colors that he gets… like Rupert said, it feels orchestral, but then it also feels like that period of time when they were suddenly adding marimbas and saxophones; the melding of a lot of different American styles. I think it’s amazing, the kind of colors that he gets in this piece, and as Rupert said, in such a short amount of time.

EK: I think the fast stuff and jazzy stuff might be easy to latch onto, and his slower, beautiful, moody music really gets you into a mood. I hope the audience enjoys the harmonies he uses and the voicing he does.