Listen Mendelssohn -- String Quartet No. 2, Op. 13 I. Adagio - Allegro vivace
Aug 27, 2015
Listen Prokofiev -- String Quartet No. 2 in F major, Op. 92 I. Allegro sostenuto
Sep 8, 2015
Kids love to make connections. They love it when the first violinist in Lux String Quartet has the same favorite color as them, they love it when they correctly identify who was which ensemble member is playing the melody, and they love it when they know that the string quartet isn't playing beautifully because the players aren't looking at each other! Lux uses the works of romantic masters like Felix Mendelssohn and Antonín Dvořák, as well as the tango aficionado Astor Piazzolla and arrangement of J.S. Bach to illustrate several concepts important to being an ensemble player, particularly in a string quartet. These concept of playing different roles whilst working together as a team is the overarching umbrella under which all the others fit.
"A string quartet's job is to make beautiful music," and the only way to do that is for the ensemble to work together as a team. These three tricks make the best collaboration: 1) look at each other, 2) breath together and 3) listen to each other. Lux goes through a funny caricature of the opposite of collaboration and what it sounds like if they don't do ALL of those three things at the same time (at one point the violist just wanders off from the rest of the quartet). Not only does the quartet have to look at each other, they have to breathe together to start a piece or even a later passage. The first violin is responsible for leading the rest of the ensemble with her breath; the speed of her breath determines the tempo — whether it's a fast sniff for a fast tempo or a slow inhale for a slower tempo — this is essential for the ensemble to start together on the same page (as it were). The entire quartet is responsible for listening to each other through the piece to keep together.
Whilst all of these tricks are essential for every member to know, each individual member still has their own unique jobs throughout the piece and sometimes these jobs are passed around. From violin to cello, highest strings to lowest strings, the voices are all different, but they work together like a sports team.
Lux uses the second movement of Dvořák's "American" string quartet to illustrate the concept of melody in different excerpts from the piece. Written during his residency in Spillville, Iowa, this beautiful string quartet has a distinct American inspired by Dvořák's experience in the natural world of Midwest and the music that he heard. At the opening of the piece, as is often the default in string quartet music, the 1st violin is the star of the show and the rest of the ensemble has a supporting role. Its "singing melody" is like a "little leaf floating down a river" whilst the pulsating rhythm in the 2nd violin represents the "waves on the water," the arpeggios in the viola are the "river rolling slow and steady like the Mississippi" all whilst the cello keeps the pulse with pizzicato notes.
However there's no rule that the 1st violin is the only instrument that gets the melody. In two other example passages from the Dvořák, the 1st violin trades off the melody duties first with the cello and then with the second violin. In a four-voice Bach fugue, (originally for keyboard, of course, but lending itself easily to a string quartet), the melody gets passed around all the voices. In a fugue, the melody or "theme" is established by one voice at the opening of the piece, and then disappears and reappears across the four voices throughout, with slight variations each time.
The fiery tango for four voices by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, possible requires even more concentrated collaborative work than the other pieces. It's incredibly difficult, being fast, full of tricky rhythms and the last concept: special effects on string instruments. There's pizzicato — plucking of the strings, though that's pretty common, ponticello — playing right by the bridge of the instrument creating a squeaky wispy sound, sandpaper — an onomatopoeic effect when the player bows right at the "frog" (where the bow hair meets the hand grip), glissando — sliding between pitches on the string, and tremolo — fast, tiny bowings. There's even a combination of glissando and tremolo, simultaneously! The overall effect of all these techniques brings out the emotion and passion in the tango.
Lux must be pretty well practiced at collaboration because they do play beautifully. It's a skill that can be built in a music ensemble or on the sports field, but translates well to pretty much any other time in life, whether it's in the workplace, a relationship between two romantic partners, or perhaps in an emergency situation. Listening, knowing one's own role/s in life, and communicating are key to maturing into a successful person. Making that connection is something that is great for children to learn very young and it's the perfect argument for every child to participate in a music ensemble.