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Dover Quartet's '4-way dictatorship' seems to be working

Robert Rowat

"There are plenty of challenges facing chamber music groups today, but the big one is setting yourselves apart as a unique group," muses Dover Quartet violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt.

Grand prize winners at the 2013 Banff International String Quartet Competition, the Dover Quartet is busy this summer doing exactly that: setting itself apart with a varied agenda of appearances, including a July 23 concert at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival and a week-long residency starting July 24 at the Toronto Summer Music Festival and Academy, culminating in an all-Beethoven concert. We got them together recently for an in-depth conversation in advance of those performances. 

The members of the Dover Quartet are Joel Link and Bryan Lee (violins), Pajaro-van de Stadt (viola) and Camden Shaw (cello), and the New Yorker calls them "the young American string quartet of the moment," a mantle they wear with pride.

"For me, the biggest identifier about being an 'American' quartet is thinking about the great American ensembles that have come before us, and trying to follow in their illustrious footsteps," says violinist Link. "We have admired so many groups that have come before us, and we always will. To have the opportunity to be among those to carry on their legacy is an enormous responsibility, as well as a tremendous honour and privilege.”

Having played together for eight years, the Dover Quartet will soon transition from young ensemble to one approaching mid-career, which is kind of astonishing, since its members are still in their 20s.

“I think we have reached a very unique point in our trajectory as a quartet," reflects violist Pajaro-van de Stadt. "We now know each other as musicians better than anyone we've ever played with, yet we see with excitement a long future ahead with so much still to discover and learn, not just about the music, but ourselves. I hope that no matter how long we play together — fingers crossed that it's a matter of many decades! — we can always feel like a 'young quartet' in the sense that there is truly never a point when the learning and growth can stop!”

So many chamber groups start out strong but fizzle after a few years. As cellist Shaw explains, there's an inertia that must be overcome in order to endure:

“It was certainly the case in our quartet, and I believe it is the case in most quartets, that the first few years together become increasingly difficult for a time. About four years in, one can feel overwhelmed at the thought of spending a lifetime with the same three colleagues, and the intricacies of each personality can strain the interaction between people under stress (and there’s often stress when touring and performing are involved.) What I’ve noticed in the last few years is that we are entering a stage in which we know each other well enough that those interpersonal challenges are not so much of an issue anymore."

"I think of the quartet as being a four-way dictatorship!" Lee adds. "But I mean this in the best sense, if there is one. Everyone in the group has a very strong and distinct character and personality, and we can all be assertive when it is needed. Sometimes being democratic can waste a lot of time!”

Violist Pajaro-van de Stadt views things a bit differently: “We are the ideal democracy, which by definition is a dictatorship run by the violist.”

'The stuff of legend'

In the past year alone, the Dover Quartet graced the stages of concert halls in Vancouver, Lucerne, Dallas, Boston, Paris, Bonn, Tel Aviv and Berlin, to name only a few, but it was the group's Carnegie Hall debut on April 8 that really stood out.

“Our Carnegie debut was indeed a very special experience," recalls violinist Lee. "Obviously there are so many fantastic halls and venues out there, but the thing that makes Carnegie special is really the history of it — all the great performances ... that have taken place over the years are the stuff of legend. To be on the same stage that the giants of the music world have been on, it definitely gave our performance an extra special energy.”

Link concurs: “From the time you are a little kid with any kind of musical background, 'Carnegie Hall' is a pair of words that immediately becomes synonymous with representing the highest level of concert performance in the United States, if not the whole world. It is every musician's dream to be able to one day play a concert there. For us, it was great to see so many familiar faces of family and friends in the audience. It really felt like a celebration of everything that had happened until this point in our lives. It was truly special.”

They played a substantial and traditional program at Carnegie Hall: Dvorak's "American" Quartet, Berg's Op. 3 Quartet and Beethoven's first "Razumovsky" Quartet, and while they've solidified their reputation with standard rep, they're committed to engaging with the music of their time and have already given the world premiere of works by some of today's most exciting composers.

“We recently gave the world premier of [Pulitzer Prize-winning composer] Caroline Shaw's new string quartet, Plan and Elevation (the Grounds of Dumbarton Oaks)," explains Link. It was a 75th anniversary commission from Friends of Music at Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C., whose long tradition of commissioning young composers extends back to Stravinsky and Copland.

"Caroline is a brilliant composer," Link continues, "and we loved getting to work with her on such a colorful work. Along with getting to play Caroline's quartet in concert, we also got to play Mozart's C-minor Viola Quintet with her. It was really unique to get to play with her and observe her musical brain outside of her own music, and it truly informed us on how to play her music even better.”

Fans of the Dover Quartet can look forward to the release of its debut album this fall, a tribute to the Guarneri Quartet, whose first album (all-Mozart) was released 50 years ago. The Dover Quartet's release will include Mozart's last two string quartets. "The same album also includes Mozart’s C-minor Viola Quintet, with Guarneri violist Michael Tree," adds Shaw. "We also have an album of World War II music to be released next spring. Keep an eye out!"

As for the recording process, Shaw says it's a delicate balance of maintaining a high level of emotion ("Much more tiring to do in an eight-hour recording session than a one-and-a-half-hour concert!") and at the same time, aiming for the highest possible technical perfection. "That kind of perfection can be a hollow pursuit for an artist. But on a recording, you might get tired of hearing the same out-of-tune note for the rest of your life, so there’s a lot of pressure to play at a high level.”

There's also a lot of pressure to survive, period, and to compete for a slice of the elusive chamber music market.

"We are so lucky to be involved in the fulfilling and enriching world of chamber music, but that secret is out, and therefore there are tons of chamber groups trying to make it their full-time career nowadays," reflects Pajaro-van de Stadt. "We all want to do what we love, but must find unique and — most importantly — personal ways to express our art and connect to others. We are not only performers, but ambassadors between the centuries, and must show the world why what we do is important to mankind and not just ourselves.”

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