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Visiting string quartets teach - and inspire

March 10, 2011

When Jenna Dalbey was an undergraduate music student at ASU, she had the opportunity to meet and perform with members of two visiting string quartets – the St. Lawrence and Juilliard.

It was a life-changing experience, said Dalbey, a cellist who is now working towards her doctoral degree at ASU.

"Working with these quartets is what inspired me to become a professional musician," she said. "And the St. Lawrence especially taught me that being a great musician is not enough. You have to create opportunities in your own field."

Through the St. Lawrence, she learned that string quartets could have a positive impact on the community by bringing the gift of music to children.

"That's why we were inspired to form our own quartet," said Dalbey, who with a group of ASU graduates founded the Tetra (Latin for four) String Quartet in 2009. "We have something to give our community here – to expose a new audience to classical music."

Those words are music to the ears of violinist Jonathan Swartz, who is the artistic director for the Herberger Institute School of Music’s Visiting Quartet in Residence Program: Dalbey’s experience epitomizes what the residency program is all about.

"The Quartet Residency is a vehicle for helping our students develop their voices," he said. "We plan the curriculum around the visits. Students get to study with many of the greatest artists in the world, while developing relationships with them that last beyond their time at ASU."

The Visiting Quartet in Residence Program, which has now brought five different internationally renowned string quartets to the ASU campus – St. Lawrence, Juilliard, Brentano, Tokyo and Orion – started in the fall of 2005 with funding from the President's Office.

"After three years, it was up to the School of Music to keep it going," said Swartz. "Recently, considering the economy, we have had to be very creative to make things work."

As well as searching for an endowment, ASU this year partnered with the Musical Instrument Museum and the Phoenix Chamber Music Society.  The two entities collaborated in choosing the Orion String Quartet for the residency, and engaged them on their respective concert series in coordination with the residency activities at ASU.

In addition, ASU and the Orion String Quartet presented an outreach program at the MIM for high school students.  This included ASU students performing Ravel's String Quartet with the Orion, and highlighted Ravel's world music influence in this work.

ASU's Visiting Quartet in Residence Program is, Swartz noted, unique in the United States. "Our program is a model for other music schools. We bring in a different string quartet each year, and they make multiple visits per year," Swartz said.

"Quartet music has an incredible history. It has been a vehicle for all the major composers throughout history," he said. "Stringed instruments present many possibilities for composers.

The string quartet is also an outstanding teaching tool, Swartz added. "In an orchestra, there are many string players playing the same part.  Sometimes, you can get lost in the middle of the section and hide. With a string quartet, everyone has their own part so there is individual accountability.

"In an orchestra you follow the conductor for musical leadership. In a quartet, you have leadership and musical responsibility. You can make a greater impact."

Having the same quartet at ASU for multiple visits also allows the students - and the audience - to get to know the players, and to hear the range of music the quartet has to offer, Swartz said. "It's different from a one-shot concert.

Swartz stressed that the residency program is for the community as well as the students, and he noted that the community has responded. "All of the concerts in the past have been incredibly successful," he said. "The quartets are captivating and energetic. You get to know the musicians."

Dalbey commented, "I received invaluable one-on-one time with each quartet I worked with. This is a unique experience that is hard to find in other music programs."

Though there are numerous top string quartets in the nation, Swartz said the School of Music has five to 10 quartets “on its radar” now. “And all the quartets that have been here so far could be invited back.”

Perhaps one day the Tetra String Quartet will join the ranks as a visiting quartet. Meanwhile, Dalbey said, the Tetra is trying to emulate the community service activities of the St. Lawrence. "They collaborate with schools, dance companies, other venues," she said. "They are much more than musicians. They are ambassadors for music.

"We are in the process of forming relationships with schools through our program ‘Tetra Time,’ where we use music to teach critical thinking and problem solving skills to enrich standard curriculums. A string quartet can have a lot of power on their community socially, to inspire kids to keep up their grades and stay in school. Our dream is to a create a program where we teach chamber music to kids.”

The Orion String Quartet will return to ASU for its last visit April 11-13. Their featured concert is scheduled for 7:30 p.m., April 13 in Katzin Concert Hall, and the program will include Schubert's "Death and the Maiden String Quartet."

Next year, the Brentano String Quartet will be in residence for their second time. They were in residence during the third year of the program, and they are only the second quartet to be invited back. (The St. Lawrence was the first.)

Tickets for the April 13 concert by the Orion String Quartet are $8-$23. Subscriptions for next year’s performances of the Brentano String Quartet may be purchased at a discount until August, when single tickets go on sale. For more information about tickets for either ensemble, call the Herberger Box Office, (480) 965-6447.