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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 7

The Miami String Quartet at MISQA

by L. H. Tiffany Hsieh / June 1, 2013

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Miami String Quartet

Great string quartets aren’t born, they are taught. For Keith Robinson, not only did the musical knowledge passed on to him as a student motivate the cellist to create the Miami String Quartet in 1988, but it remains foundational to the group’s success today.

“Our teachers at the Curtis Institute of Music were members of the Guarneri Quartet. We really looked up to them and were inspired by them,” Robinson said. “David Soyer (the late founding cellist of the Guarneri) used to call me Scott. He was a bit scary, hairy and gruff, so that I didn’t dare correct him. They were the greatest quartet ever.”

Since its nascent days, the Miami String Quartet has gone on to win recognition in competitions around the world. It was the first string quartet in a decade to win the Concert Artists Guild New York Competition, in 1992. Now the Quartet-in-Residence at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio, Benny Kim (violin), Cathy Meng Robinson (violin), Scott Lee (viola) and Keith Robinson (cello) will celebrate 25 years of music making in the 2013-14 concert season. In August, the foursome will open the McGill International String Quartet Academy (MISQA) in Montreal, performing works by Mozart, Shostakovich and Mendelssohn.

Like most chamber musicians, Robinson, who is also returning to MISQA as a professor for the second time, draws his influence from more than one source. Another mentor, Felix Galimir, the revered chamber musician and coach described by the New York Times in its 1999 obituary as “a violinist who was one of the last links to the vital musical world of prewar Vienna,” was instrumental in starting many quartet careers. “His love of music was infectious and I couldn’t help but learn to love quartets through him,” said Robinson.

Now a link to the legend of Galimir and the Guarneri, Robinson credits organizations like MISQA for fostering a professional and specialized training ground, allowing promising young quartets the chance to take their skills to the next level.

“The environment and atmosphere at MISQA are great. The objective is for these young musicians to perfect the art of string quartet playing – musically and technically – in an intensive learning environment with ideas shared on an international level by professors and participants alike,” Robinson said. “Usually, string quartets meet at competitions and everyone is more or less focusing on the goal at hand. At MISQA, there’s this feeling of exchange and camaraderie that you can’t find at competitions. There’s a real sense of community that is being developed and friendships that are made for a lifetime.”

Because MISQA allows emerging quartets to discuss ideas and work with experts from different countries, many come to get their feet wet before competing at the triennial Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC), immediately following MISQA. In fact, three of the finalists are doing both: the Calidore (USA/Canada), Navarra (UK/Ireland/The Netherlands) and Schumann (Germany) quartets.

While every quartet has its own unique style, sound and approach, trying to achieve that unique sound shouldn’t be the ensemble’s primary focus, Robinson believes. Rather, quartets should devote more time to interpreting the score. “A performer’s first obligation is to the composer. What did the composer want here? Then the sound will come naturally,” he explained. “Sometimes the ‘aha’ moment can take weeks, sometimes you just need to suggest a tempo change. It may take a while, but certainly when it comes, it’s great.”

However, regardless of how talented a quartet is, “It takes years for a quartet to develop a career, and this is accomplished through events like MISQA and BISQC and establishing ties with presenters and audiences,” Robinson said.

Being in a string quartet is much like being in a marriage, with business and other challenges to deal with, according to Robinson. In fact, Robinson is married to the Miami String Quartet’s second violinist, Cathy Meng. When they are on tour, the couple gets separate rooms so they can each practice separately.

Despite today’s multimedia-rich society, Robinson remains confident about the future of classical music. “I certainly don’t think classical music is dead. There are more string quartets today than ever before, due in large part to the popularity of the medium and the relatively low cost of presenting a string quartet, as opposed to a symphony orchestra or an opera,” Robinson said. “We need to keep music in the schools, so children are exposed to classical music at an early age – not only listening to it, but even better, playing it.”

At MISQA. August 11. misqa.com

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