‘Just go for it’: An adventurous quartet, always in the moment
Early on in their formative years, the members of the Aizuri Quartet got some invaluable advice from their chamber music coaches. The quality of string quartet playing is now so advanced that young ensembles feel the need to show a high level of technical proficiency early on. “There is that pressure for a quartet to sound super tight, super clean,” said Karen Ouzounian, the Aizuri’s cellist, during a recent interview. And when they would play a minuet from, say, an 18th-century quartet, “it wasn’t always the cleanest.”
But, she continued, they noticed other things about their chemistry. Each time they played something, it was a little different, and “we were always on our toes and playing musical games with each other.” So rather than make refinement and precision the measure of their work, they were instead advised, “ ‘Don’t only try to be together. Just go for it,’ ” Ouzounian recalled. “ ‘Go for the gesture, go for the music, and see where you all land.’ ” The polish, their teachers advised, would come with time. Better to start from a place of imagination and daring.
The guidance paid off, as the Aizuri (which performs at the Rockport Chamber Music Festival on June 27) has become known for its audacious performing style and an equally adventurous programming streak. Its progress has been swift: Just two years after completing a quartet training program at the Curtis Institute of Music, the Aizuri — violinists Ariana Kim and Miho Saegusa, violist Ayane Kozasa, and Ouzounian — won the 2018 M-Prize, a prestigious chamber music award that came with a $100,000 stipend. (It was also the final winner of the award, as the M-Prize was terminated soon after.)
“People ask: What is the identity of your quartet?” Ouzounian said. “And the truth is, we didn’t really know when we started out. We knew we were really intense players, and there were a lot of musical qualities we shared. One is that it’s really important to always be in the moment and spontaneous.” Another, they discovered, is figuring out “how the emotional content of the music evolves into a storytelling quality.”
Their programming acumen got a boost during the 2017-18 season, when they were in residence at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. There were to be five concerts whose content was totally up to the quartet members to dream up. One brought together music created in the shadow of political turmoil, ranging from Beethoven to Sofia Gubaidulina. Another was a migration-themed program with the Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh. Still another, examining composers in various states of isolation, yoked together the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo with Conlon Nancarrow, a maverick American who emigrated to Mexico to escape harassment during the McCarthy era. Most of the music on the programs were works the quartet had never played before that season.
“It got us thinking about liking the [programming] process,” said Saegusa of the residency. “It was kind of like a puzzle of combining what we love with trying to find a thread through a program, or through the kind of collaborations we wanted to do.”
“We had to think through the experience of the audience from start to finish,” added Ouzounian. “What type of space are we in? What is the length of the program? Is there any talking [to the audience]? How does one piece progress to the next?”
The desire to make connections across temporal and thematic boundaries comes through on the Aizuri’s debut album, “Blueprinting,” released last year on New Amsterdam Records. It consists solely of works composed for the quartet. The almost-title work — “Blueprint” by Caroline Shaw — is a reference to the source of the quartet’s name: “aizuri-e,” a traditional form of Japanese woodblock printing that uses a particular shade of blue.
Shaw’s piece, which she describes as a “harmonic reduction” of Beethoven’s Quartet in B-flat (Op. 18, No. 6), also creates a link back to the roots of the genre. The two works form a natural pair in the second half of the Aizuri’s Rockport concert. The program opens with Gabriella Smith’s “Carrot Revolution” (also from “Blueprinting”), an explosive, multihued, and dissonant work whose stylistic influences range from Georgian folk songs to Celtic fiddling. It may seem like a wide gulf separates the Smith from Haydn’s Quartet in B Minor (Op. 64, No. 2), but Saegusa thinks that “just starting with ‘Carrot Revolution’ might really alter the way an audience hears Haydn right after that piece, and [help them] appreciate just how adventurous he was.”
There are well-known challenges to being in a string quartet, of which long periods of time on the road, in rehearsal, and away from home and loved ones are the most familiar. “It’s not an easy life by any means,” Saegusa said. “There is the challenge of being on the road, to try to fit the puzzle pieces of four lives together in a way that is meaningful for everybody.”
Yet to a surprising extent, the quartet members seemed intent on seeing those not as burdens but as challenges to be overcome in the quartet’s ongoing evolution. “The challenge of being married to these three other people,” Ouzounian said, “the challenge of, no matter how crummy you’re feeling, coming to rehearsal and being there 100 percent — that challenge is a growth opportunity. And I feel like we’re lucky to have that. To keep stretching even though it’s challenging.”
Presented by Rockport Chamber Music Festival. At Shalin Liu Performance Center, Rockport, June 27, 8 p.m. Tickets $29-$39. 978-546-7391, www.rockportmusic.org