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Connecting with the Jasper Quartet: A Window on Conservatory Life

For Four Disparate Musicians, the Challenge Is Simple: Only Connect

Do I want to be part of the Jasper Quartet for the rest of my life?

We formed the quartet in the fall of 2003 with one goal: to audition for Oberlin’s String Quartet winter-term project at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. We also formed one of the oddest combinations of personalities in Oberlin.

At first, I fully expected us to clash with one another, and we did. Now I realize our differences—and the evolution of our separate personalities—are what make us so interesting as a quartet.

Evan Few, who is from Atlanta, started out as a violin performance and English major. He was an introvert.

Sam Quintal, who was home-schooled in Fairbanks, Alaska, was majoring in violin and physics. He lived in Harkness, a free-spirited co-op.

Cellist Rachel Henderson, from Ann Arbor, was devoted to the conservatory-orchestral path, spending most of her day in a practice room.

And I’m from St. Louis, majoring in violin performance and politics. I was loud.

Through the experiences we shared since winning that audition, our personalities and interests changed. Evan dropped the English major to study the baroque violin. Sam dropped physics to spend more time with the viola. Rachel, although still quite devoted to her practicing, is now more focused on chamber music. I gradually realized that loud is not usually helpful.

It was during our first trip to Washington, D.C., that we began to understand how we worked together. As it turned out, an introvert, a “Harkie,” a “Connie,” and a loudmouth can be slightly combustible—especially when living under the same roof, as we did for 10 days as part of the Smithsonian experience.

Our first attempted rehearsal in that house quickly unraveled into a three-hour discussion about each other’s weaknesses, precipitated by a lunch where similarly sensitive topics had been repeatedly broached.

Upon our return to Oberlin from that tumultuous trip, I confided to Evan that I had had enough and could no longer bear the drama of the quartet. By this time, however, we had gotten used to talking through our problems together, which is what Evan and I did. Gradually, I began to see, as did the rest of us, that our differences were becoming helpful instead of detrimental.

We gained a vital insight into the quartet dynamic from that experience that remains with us: beneath our seemingly constant criticism of one another is a deep personal commitment to each other and to the group.

There are many successful quartets whose members famously don’t spend time together outside of rehearsal because they simply do not get along. We are quite the opposite. Sure, we still have our fights, but the large amount of time we choose to spend together outside of rehearsal reinforces the internal connection that allows us to perform together as a unit, anticipating what each will do next.

Many people, after hearing us, have said that our greatest asset is our cohesiveness. Upon listening to groups whose members maintain a distance outside of rehearsal, it is usually evident they support a theory of performance in which the quartet is made up of four individuals—almost as if they are four soloists. While this mode of performance is accepted by some of the greatest chamber musicians, our concept of a quartet is at the other end of the spectrum.

We believe a quartet’s sound should be a blending of four individuals to create one voice. As I now understand, the ability to achieve such blending grows out of sharing experiences, such as making an enormous calzone together (with feta and goat cheese), which we did the night Earl Carlyss, former second violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, accepted us into the Advanced Quartet Studies program at the Aspen Music Festival, or sharing adjoining cabins there that summer.

Experiences like these are what make Evan, Sam, Rachel, and me close, and our closeness helps us present a unified performance when we are on stage together as the Jasper Quartet. We are not simply connected by the music. We are connected to each other. Our cohesiveness is not confined to the music; it is always there.

When I started playing chamber music, I was also quite connected to my partners, but in a strikingly different fashion. I was the youngest member of the Freivogel Family String Quartet. I began playing the violin at age 2. At 6 my three older siblings decided they would give me a shot as the second violinist. (Of course I could get away with a few more things then than I can now.)

There is something mystical about the makeup of a string quartet. Usually when four people get together to start a quartet, it does not work, but when it does, it can be spectacular. My experiences with my family ensemble—and now with Evan, Sam, and Rachel—have made a profound imprint on me musically and personally.

While doing outreach in the Washington, D.C., schools as part of the Oberlin String Quartet winter-term project, I realized there is a place for string quartet literature in everyone’s life. I realized my love for chamber music was not tied to good memories or an amazing repertoire. My love for chamber music stems from the incredible interaction and connection I feel with my quartet mates and with our audience.

Our goal as the Jasper Quartet is to pursue a life of chamber music together. Our group would certainly not have succeeded thus far without the amazing opportunities afforded by Oberlin, which has sent our quartet to D.C. three times—for the 2004 and 2005 winter-term projects at the Smithsonian and to the Kennedy Center last February—and which plans to send us abroad next year. Although this has been a great beginning, it is truly only the beginning.

This summer will be our first in the Advanced Quartet Studies Program at Aspen. The program is designed to prepare viable quartets for careers in the professional world. I hope we will make it, but if we don’t, I am confident that I will not feel the slightest regret for investing my life in the pursuit of chamber music as the first violinist of the Jasper Quartet.

I once wondered if living a life making chamber music was so rewarding that I should pour countless hours of rehearsal and struggle into this group—into any group—to make it work.

I can say now that the answer is unfailingly yes.

J Freivogel began playing violin at the age of 2. He is a fourth-year double degree student, studying violin with Professor of Violin Marilyn McDonald in the Conservatory and majoring in politics in the College. He was the recipient of the 2004 Presser Music Award and the Kaufman Prize for Violin.

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