Chamber Music Wilmington (CMW) was in luck when the German Schumann Quartet took a 3-year residency at Lincoln Center in New York. That made it feasible for CMW Artistic Director, Barbara McKenzie, to to secure this group for a performance in Wilmington: Sunday, November 5 at Beckwith Recital Hall, 7:30pm.
The Schumann Quartet will also be at WHQR conducting a String Masterclass on Sunday afternoon, 1:30-2:30. Musicians and enthusiasts are welcome to observe.
Barbara McKenzie is not just an international concert pianist with a stunning resume...she is a philosopher of music. Listen to our short interview above, or to learn more about the Schumann Quartet and understand why music is so valuable in Barbara's perspective, read our extended conversation below.
Barbara: Samuel Barber...the Adagio for Strings, which is very well-known, recognized as a tear jerker. It's been used in films and movies such as Platoon. It's one of those pieces that we hear all around us and most people don't realize it's classical music. And it's not only classical music, but it's an American composition. And then we have this beautiful young quartet coming from Cologne via their residency at Lincoln Center to play Schubert for us, which is of course you know he was Viennese German. How do we get beyond those kinds of descriptions to really get people, like the general listener, to be curious enough to come hear it? Other than saying it's really beautiful music, which I find myself saying all the time because it is really beautiful music and these are passionate players. But how do we go beyond that to really inspire somebody to check us out and check out chamber music maybe for the first time?
Gina: Sometimes in the art world and in other ineffable worlds, we feel like we have to find new justifications for why it's valuable. And I think there is no other reason except for that it's beautiful.
Barbara: It is beautiful. So I went down to one of the newcomers clubs in Brunswick County. The whole room was full of people. I guess there are 150 or more people there. I started with asking how many played any kind of instrument- piano or an orchestral instrument or otherwise and many hands went up and some people shouted out clarinet or flute or a trumpet from band. And then I asked, “How many of you in this room attend classical concerts?” And really fewer hands went up. And then I asked, “How many of you have ever attended a chamber music performance?” And even fewer hands. Then I talked about classical music and how, in these days, we don't really take time for ourselves enough and we don't take the time to listen. That's also the time to reflect and that is one beautiful thing that we can expect when we go to a classical music concert, is that we have that quiet and that peace surrounding us with a roomful of dedicated listeners who are using that time to go inside and be still and listen to this incredibly beautiful music. And music that speaks to our hearts and elicits a full range of human emotion, whether it's giggly and funny and joking and prankster, which we often hear in Haydn or Mozart, to this kind of deep emotional expression of loss or grief or searching that we hear in pieces like Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings. Just talking about how classical music speaks to our human emotion and allows us to be present to our emotions in a way that other music may not. Not that it's good or bad or better, but it's an opportunity that we don't often have in other music. I played then for them the Samuel Barber Adagio for Strings and several of the men came up and some literally had tears in their eyes and they said, “I recognize that piece- wasn't that in Platoon when the guy’s trying to save his buddy? It was just a very climactic part of the movie and I'll never forget that.”
That's what I want to capture and get across to our listeners, is that we take it in classical music unknowingly sometimes on such a deep level that it brings insights and personal revelations and sparks something in us, whether it's a memory or an inspiration or just a passionate feeling about something that's important to us. And how else can you explain that other than to just say, please come in and take this in. Do this for yourself because it's a really beautiful opportunity that is presented by the community. Especially when you have artists like the Schumann Quartet that bring such a high level of not only mastery, but just understanding of this music and how to interpret it so that the audience really can receive it in a very symbiotic kind of relationship.
Gina: Tell me about about the Schumann Quartet. Actually, I did have I have a student who has been helping me. He's a high school student. It’s three brothers?
Barbara: Yes. They've played together since early childhood. And then Lisa joined them in 2012.
Gina: Is there any relation to Robert Schumann here?
Barbara: I asked that and no, there isn't.
Gina: Do they love Schumann?
Barbara: They do love Schumann. They play all of the German repertoire, but the reason we asked them to play specifically this Schubert Rosamunda quartet is that we had never programmed that. And it's really one of the most beloved string quartets in the repertoire. That's another one that is just so tuneful. People will leave the concert whistling one of those tunes. I think that's really, really great and it's great for beginning chamber music listeners to hear music like that because it's so accessible.
Gina: And have you ever heard them?
Barbara: This is new. How I was introduced to them, I have a very dear friend- wonderful world class flutist who lives in Cologne- and I was asking her who's really hot right now in Europe and what some of the string quartets that she likes are. I respect her opinion a lot. She said one of the best string quartets that she had heard period was this young Schumann Quartett. So I went online and many of their performances were uploaded to YouTube and I just thought they had a very authentic, very personal, very musically expressed way of playing. I think sometimes classical music can be presented as a formula. It can get very formulaic, especially when you have a piece like the Schubert that everybody knows and plays and has heard for many, many years. You sort of get this set traditional way of presenting it and they push beyond those boundaries and bring a really fresh interpretation. And they're very proud of that, actually. They talk a lot about having digested this music and played it for a while now, especially as brothers. These three Schumann brothers are working on an intuitive level that goes beyond the normal quartet personality interaction. And then Eric is married to Lisa. So then you have a married couple within the quartet as well, which brings another dimension. And so I think they're really able to be spontaneous in their performances because they're really on the same wavelength.
You know, in string quartets there's so much coordination. They have to be very careful and very planned and very precise and sometimes they lose that spontaneity. Especially if they're playing as many concerts together as this group is, there’s a danger of losing this spontaneity. But when you're a really fine German musician, you can take chances because you know everybody's listening so intently.
Gina: It becomes intuitive instead of intellectual.
Barbara: Very intuitive and very spontaneous. And that's what makes the music exciting. And especially for the listener, because when you're playing like that, you're so alive. There's such a vitality and you're in yourself as a performer. And then the audience picks up on that excitement and then there's this wonderful cyclic kind of energy that's going between the audience and the performer. And we have that here. I'm really excited, especially in that beautiful hall- Beckwith Recital Hall.
Gina: There is something inimitable about attending a live concert. When you are watching and in the same room and breathing the same air with the musicians, it’s like you're an organism.
Barbara: Right, you're breathing it together. This year we have a lot of new people coming to chamber music Wilmington concerts and I'm really tickled about that, and what they do if they catch me in the foyer is they I say, “This was so exciting because I was so close to the musicians, I could really watch them interact and I could watch the music taking place because of the way they were communicating with their instruments and with each other with their body language.”
Gina: And their eyes.
Barbara: And their eyes and smiles. You can tell if there's a little private joke or they pulled something off that they were like, Oh that was good. That was new. So I think that's one of the joys of this genre- chamber music- is that it is very intimate and very inclusive.
Gina: And then the Schumann Quartet will also be at WHQR on Sunday before the concert.
Barbara: Sunday afternoon at 1:30. It's a free string master class and workshop with the Schumann Quartet. I think they speak English very well, so please don't be intimidated by thinking you have to speak German. But if you're a string player, I really encourage people in the community to come. This is for you. It is our outreach and community enrichment to bring these fabulous artists into contact with people who are playing stringed instruments. And that goes for adults and kids who are studying and students who are studying, whether it's cello or viola or violin. I just encourage you to come and be part of this wonderful opportunity.
Gina: And if you really love strings, you could come and watch even if you don't play.
Barbara: That's right. We often have adults who just want to come and listen. People just love to watch masterclasses.
Gina: I don't play strings but I love watching.
Barbara: Last time Amet Peled had everybody playing the Wonderful Hallelujah from Leonard Cohen. That was great. So this time we have the two local high school string quartets and a middle school ensemble and a couple of soloists who will be performing. That'll be really fun.