When William Ransom first brought the Vega Quartet to Atlanta in 2003 for a series of six concerts to perform all 18 of Beethoven’s string quartets, the group perfectly fit the bill for something he’d envisioned for the new Schwartz Center for Performing Arts: a chamber group in residence at Emory University.
Ransom, an Emory piano professor and artistic director of the university’s Chamber Music Society, saw that Atlanta’s chamber scene was dominated by university professors and musicians moonlighting from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In the Vega Quartet, he saw the opportunity to establish a classical music presence on campus that could be integrated into the curriculum.
Atlanta audiences will once again be able to hear all 18 of Beethoven’s string quartets in 2020–21, through six free concerts that begin Saturday night at Emerson Hall. Each concert will feature three quartets, one each from the composer’s early, middle and late periods.
Concertgoers will be able to witness the growth and maturity of a quartet that has grown into perhaps the city’s most prominent chamber music group.
The quartet’s Shanghai beginnings
The Vega Quartet traces its roots to Shanghai, an unlikely incubator for a string quartet, a very Western music form. Two little girls, violinist Jessica Wu and violist Yinzi Kong, entered Shanghai Conservatory in the early 1980s, encouraged by family and friends to audition for places at the reinvigorated school.
Her class had four violinists, Wu says. These were the years after China’s brutal Cultural Revolution (1966–76), which had devastated the conservatory, China’s oldest such institution. Faculty members and musicians had been killed, exiled or driven to suicide in a countrywide repudiation of Western music. Wu says her professional parents had been forced to work in a factory during that time.
When the Revolution ended, China once again embraced Western music and the humanities. Conservatories, eager to rebuild faculty, sent music teachers to Russia to further study their instruments and the Western canon, then return to China. Vega cellist Guang Wang, whose father was an amateur violinist, says that his mother had gone to Russia to study Russian literature. Wang, who grew up in the northern city of Shenyang, studied for six years at Shenyang’s music conservatory before moving to Shanghai in high school and joining the quartet, as its second cellist, in the early 1990s. This was when the group renamed itself “Vega” after the brightest star in the Lyra constellation. Quartets are typically formed in music schools, when students want an alternative to pursuing an orchestral or solo career as well as an opportunity to play an extensive, established repertoire.
The rigorous competition-oriented Communist system emphasized technical proficiency, and the Vega Quartet was encouraged to enter international competitions. Beginning in 1991, it was through these performances that the ensemble first came to the West. Throughout the decade the musicians earned prizes at an array of festivals in Asia, Europe and the United States. Still, China had no professional quartets and the Vega Quartet’s members eventually left and, in the late 1990s, enrolled at the Manhattan School of Music. When the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich visited, they were invited to play with him. He worked with them on Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 8, a piece he had studied with the composer.
Vega Quartet members emphasize the lasting influence of the legendary Amadeus Quartet. They spent two summers — in 1994 and 2000 — studying with former Amadeus members (the Amadeus Quartet had stopped performing together after the 1987 death of its violist) at England’s Royal Academy of Music. The mutual respect and honesty in the Amadeus’ ensemble playing are attributes the Vegas have striven to cultivate.
They developed a hybrid of European and American styles. American-trained players display more individuality and energy than the tighter blending of harmonies emphasized in European ensembles. “What one needs in great quartets is the ability to assimilate without losing yourself,” Wu says. “You are 25 percent of an entity in which each instrument is technically a soloist.”
Quartets, therefore, require more practice than a large ensemble and differ from instrumentalists in a symphony, in which the emphasis for all but the principals of each section is to blend in and show unison. The Vegas rehearse several hours every weekday, usually at one of the member’s homes.
Arriving at Emory
Ransom’s office is adjacent to Emerson Hall in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, the acoustically superb, 750-seat venue that opened on campus in 2003.
ASO players and university faculty dominated Atlanta’s professional chamber scene, and were less available than full-time, dedicated chamber musicians.
Ransom had long envisioned a musical presence on campus that would integrate music across the curriculum. His piano isn’t portable (he has two grand pianos in his office), but a string quartet can go almost anywhere. The group’s first performances in 2003–04 included a two-week residency during which the players engaged with the university community in various roles.
Their effect was immediate and encouraging, Ransom says. The musicians were young, vibrant and articulate, and established an immediate connection with their audiences. In 2005, they were brought on as a full-time quartet in residence, an arrangement that is still in place but renewed each year.
Most professional quartets in the United States are now affiliated with universities or music conservatories, filling the role once held by royalty and the very wealthy. Emory, unlike music schools, doesn’t train professional musicians or offer advanced music degrees so virtually all of its music majors have a double major. They intend to pursue careers in other fields and see music as a means of personal enrichment. The Vega Quartet is the only ensemble in residence at Emory, a status that means members are guests of the college, sharing their work with the university, but able to maintain outside professional lives. They now constitute the core of a comprehensive, thriving chamber program at the university.
There is an audible distinction between ad hoc quartets, in which musicians come together for specific performances, and dedicated professionals who play together all the time. A professional quartet, over time, develops its own sound. Elizabeth Fayette, the Vega’s newest member (she replaced the former first violinist in 2016), says she wasn’t looking for work when her teacher, Juilliard violinist Sylvia Rosenberg, encouraged her to join.
Because three of the quartet’s members share a long history, its sound didn’t change with Fayette, say Kong and Ho. Fayette says she was attracted by the “honesty to the Vega’s playing, a thoughtfulness toward the score, a clean rendering of the text” and knew it would be a good fit for all of them. “Our style is technically perfect, crystalline and clean,” she says. “Our playing demonstrates that we know each other well.”
The quartet’s community outreach
Each semester a call goes to Emory faculty who’d like the quartet to give a class (it does up to eight each semester). One of the most popular is a joint offering in neuroscience and music, titled “The Musical Brain,” which is regularly oversubscribed. The quartet has even presented to a cell biology class. Quartet members also work with the university symphony and youth symphony to prepare student instrumentalists for concerts.
One class last fall, a creative arts offering titled “Love and Beauty,” convened in a rehearsal hall. Twenty students and their instructor pulled up chairs in front of the four musicians. The class used Beethoven’s tumultuous life as a way to understand the stylistic and musical development of his quartets. When they began to play Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 6, up close to the students and with a fullness of sound, it was startling and exciting. The four at first played quite slowly, gradually going faster and faster until they reached the tempo marked by Beethoven which, they explained, is challenging for amateur musicians.
When they played a “Razumovsky” (from String Quartet No. 7) scherzo, Wang explained how innovative it was for Beethoven to begin with a motif in the cello, followed in fugue by the other instruments. The class lasted nearly two hours, and the students heard individual movements from four Beethoven quartets, with commentary on the composer and the music from each musician. The Vegas had conveyed the spirit of Beethoven — the energy and complexity of his life and music — which had been shocking to polite society when it was composed.
The Vega Quartet also offers up to 10 public school visits during an academic year, apart from their Emory responsibilities. Individual schools request such visits. In early December, the musicians went to North Gwinnett Middle School where, for the second year, they gave a double class to about 100 students. Each student was learning a string instrument, including guitar. This presentation focused on the growth and development of string quartets, starting with Haydn — who’s credited with establishing the string quartet as a defined music form (he wrote 68) — before proceeding to Beethoven and Shostakovich (who wrote 16 and 15, respectively) and Eight Colors for String Quartet by Chinese composer Tan Dun (who’s still composing).
When asked which composition they liked best, most of the students raised their hands for the Tan Dun. A parent who’d taken the day off to attend, said he now sees as many of the Vega Quartet’s concerts as possible. “I’m a total fan,” he offered. “They’re a resource unique in the city.”
Commitment to craft
The Vega Quartet has played a varied repertoire at Emory — performing all six of Bartók’s challenging quartets one year, pairing them with the music of Bach. The quartet has been in the city long enough and played in so many venues that it has developed a large following, Ransom says. Visitors often comment on the size of the audiences that come to hear them.
The Vegas are excited to reprise the Beethoven string quartets. Some musicologists consider the late quartets among the greatest compositions ever written and among the most difficult to perform. Together they offer a great insight into the development of the art form and classical music in general. The Vega players talk about their maturity and their unfolding interpretation of Beethoven as they’ve played his music over the years. These concerts present an opportunity that chamber devotees will not want to miss.