Jupiter String Quartet takes Aspen stage
July 29, 2009
ASPEN – When the Jupiter String Quartet was in its early stages – before it was winning competitions, playing Carnegie Hall and becoming an ensemble-in-residence at the Aspen Music Festival – its members were geographically separated for a while.
Cellist Daniel McDonough was in New York, studying at the Juilliard School, while the rest of the ensemble – violinists Nelson Lee and Meg Freivogel, and violist Liz Freivogel – was in Boston, students at the New England Conservatory. So every weekend, one contingent or the other would take the Chinatown Express bus, which offered Boston-to-New York service for a mere $10, so they could spend a few days together.
One way to explain this arrangement is that McDonough and Meg were dating at the time. But how to account for the fact that Lee and Liz, who were not romantically inclined, would put themselves through the weekly grind of eight round-trip hours on a cheap bus, a routine Lee recalls as “extremely tiring?” Surely they could have found suitable musicians who were more geographically desirable?
“That never occurred to us at the time,” said Lee. “We had informally made a commitment to make this work. There was a motivation to make it work, and see how it would go.”
At the time, that commitment was founded on a combination of fate, family, romance and intuition, rather than a careful plan. When asked how these four musicians came to be the Jupiter Quartet, Lee shoots back, “There was a rigorous audition process … Ha, ha!”
In truth, the foursome did, at one time, make excellent geographic sense. Liz Freivogel was at Oberlin, while the remaining three were at the nearby Cleveland School of Music. Unfortunately, they didn’t take advantage of their proximity at the time. The first link in forming the Jupiter came in 2000, when Lee and Meg happened to be placed in several groups together at the Taos School of Music. Back in Cleveland, Lee and McDonough began playing together, and sharpening their common interest in specializing in chamber music. McDonough wanted to include Meg in any project he launched, and when they needed a violist to round out the group, the likeliest candidate was Liz, with whom Meg had been playing string quartets from the age of 6.
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The Jupiter – so named because the planet was prominent in the night sky at the time of the quartet’s formation – instantly found common ground. They had studied under the same teachers, and even at a young age, were willing to put all their chips on the group.
“I don’t know if we were immediately envisioning this would be our full-time job,” said the 29-year-old Lee. “But we knew we’d work at it, enter competitions, build a repertoire. And see how people received us.”
The quartet, modeling itself after the Cleveland Quartet and the Takacs Quartet, got early encouragement from teachers and other chamber players. Part of their formative period was spent in Aspen, where they participated in the Center for Advanced Quartet Studies. In 2004, they won the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and followed with first prize in the Banff International String Quartet Competition. They released their debut CD – featuring works by Shostakovich and Britten, both reflecting on World War II – two years ago, with a second, with works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven, slated for this fall.
The Jupiter aims for diversity in its repertoire. Last week in Aspen, they played a piece by Sydney Hodkinson, director of the Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. Their recent concerts have included a work by the current composer Thomas Ades, and later this year, they will premiere a quartet by the rising, 26-year-old, Dan Visconti.
Thursday, the Jupiter Quartet performs a program of string quartets by Mendelssohn and Shostakovich, and, with Joyce Yang, a Schumann Piano Quintet. The concert will include Jonathan Vinocour, principal violist for the San Francisco Symphony; Liz Freivogel is taking the summer off to tend to a newborn son.
Lee doesn’t anticipate further shuffling of the membership of the Jupiter. There exist some specific goals for the quartet to achieve: playing the full cycle of Beethoven quartets, and landing a university residency. And that desire to be a quartet is still strong.
“I know of quartets that go through membership changes. I’m not going to say that’s impossible with us,” said Lee. “But I don’t think any of us ever question our commitment to the group. There’s a mutual trust there. I don’t think the Jupiter Quartet will stop anytime soon.”