Baltimore's all female Bergamot Quartet champions new string music
By Elizabeth Nonemaker
For the Baltimore Sun|
May 03, 2019 | 11:35 AM
“Let’s start an ensemble” is the classical musician’s equivalent of “we should start a band.” The spirit may be willing, but even musicians performing at the highest levels can struggle to overcome the administrative and democratic hurdles of keeping a group together.
That’s why the members of Bergamot Quartet, the Baltimore-based string quartet that specializes in contemporary music, didn’t discuss their future until they’d already been playing together for two years.
It was the spring of 2018, and the group was fresh off a successful performance of George Crumb’s “Black Angels” at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. More important, they had just been accepted to a prestigious program at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, based in Canada, designed for up-and-coming string quartets.
It was a stepping stone into the professional realm: For three weeks that summer, they would sequester themselves among the Canadian Rockies to receive coaching from luminaries of the classical music world as they considered the history of the string quartet — and what part they might play in its future.
Until then, the ensemble hadn’t dared to dream — or assume. All students at the Peabody Institute, they had joined together as a for-credit ensemble; but that spring, two of their members — violinist Ledah Finck and cellist Irene Han — were due to graduate. Whatever came next would require a level of planning and commitment they hadn’t yet considered.
However, as Finck remembered, “Once we had that conversation, it was maybe five minutes long. We asked ourselves, do we want to keep doing this? Yeah. Why would we not?”
For one, all of the members shared similar goals for the group, top of which was an interest in specializing in music by living composers. Two of the members, Finck and violist Amy Tan, are composers in their own right. Cellist Han credits her love of experimental works to childhood studies at an interdisciplinary arts program in Paris.
“I was friends with a lot of contemporary dancers,” remembered Han. “I would go to all of their performances, where they had new music or music I just didn’t know. We would have sessions where I’d make up [music] and they’d dance around me.”
Tackling works that have only received a few performances — or none at all — requires the group to “create [their] own technique,” said Finck. “We get to decide how other people feel about this new music,” she said.
Upon their return from Banff, the group threw themselves into their newly officialized project. They sought out other musicians who shared their passion for contemporary chamber music and said yes to effectively every concert request that came their way. At a March concert presented by the Evolution Contemporary Music series featuring the work of composer Jessie Montgomery, the Bergamot Quartet performed the music for nearly the entire program.
Rather than wear on the group, the intensity brought them closer together. “We’ve built so much trust,” said Finck. “It’s been proven over and over again that being in a high-pressure situation, we’re still able to support each other.”
Those situations can take the form of limited rehearsal time before a performance — sometimes as little as a week. Under that kind of strain, every moment of rehearsal must be used efficiently.
For Bergamot, that means discussing objectives for rehearsals as well as expressing joy for the music and the opportunity to play together. At a recent rehearsal, secured at a spare practice room at Peabody, the group took a first look at new material they were preparing for a May concert, including a Beethoven quartet (rare for them) and a much more abstract piece by composer Masahiro Aogaki.
Pausing as they sight-read their way through the Beethoven, Finck fanned the practice room door to waft in fresh air while Tan passed around a box of cookies. Thomas seemed to be concentrating on something in her score. “You know,” she marveled, “I don’t think I’ve ever played Beethoven with all of you before.”
Moving on to the Aogaki, the group abandoned plans to play a run-through, instead focusing the remaining 40 minutes of rehearsal on decoding instructions for the piece’s many extended techniques and marking translations from the French, provided by Han.
Outside the practice room, their shared enthusiasm and curiosity takes the form of a wide-ranging hunger to perform, well, everything.
“So often, when we take our many road trips to New York,” said Thomas, “we listen to music, and every single piece, we’re like, ‘Can we play this?’ We listen to another one and say, ‘Oh! Can we play this too?’”
“It’s more like, ‘Why aren’t we playing this at this very moment?’” Han added.
Finck recognized that in the coming years, part of their challenge will be to “turn that energy into a sustainable and healthy career. We would love to be able to do this full-time.”
Long-term, the Bergamot Quartet is modeling themselves on independent chamber groups with distinct artistic personas. These are groups like Kronos Quartet — which tours internationally and has produced dozens of original recordings and several movie soundtracks — and the JACK Quartet, whose members coached Bergamot at Banff.
On the practical side of things, Bergamot plans to be more selective about the music they perform, and they’re also branching out to discover ways to diversify their work. Their 2019-2020 concert season will include residencies at Towson University and the University of Baltimore, and they’ve expressed a desire to work with even younger musicians. Specifically, said Finck, “We want to be a resource for composers.”
On the artistic side, neither do they plan to stop seeking coaching and mentorship themselves. Their goal, after all, is not just to play well, but to give performances that are unique to them and transformative for audiences.
At a recent concert for Music on the Square, a series that takes place at Church on the Square in Canton, the quartet offered a glimpse into their potential for such performances. They played with confidence on a collection of pieces by composers Mary Kouyoumdjian, Sam Torres and Finck herself, but something different came over them when they were joined by flutist Claire Chase, a MacArthur “Genius” Grant winner and one of their mentors at Banff.
They performed Anthony Cheung’s “Real Book of Fake Tunes,” a collection of short pieces that are not exactly “tunes” in the traditional sense, but rather encourage performers — and audiences — to luxuriate in the shifting colors and textures of the instruments.
Whether it was because they had begun the work at Banff and were more practiced with it, or because Chase’s presence brought out a kind of authority in their playing (Cheung wrote the piece with her in mind), Bergamot’s sound zipped up, radiating with an urgency to communicate something fascinating and rare.
It is those kinds of performances that will determine the future for Bergamot Quartet, but it’s this level of playing they’re intent on pursuing while navigating the ins and outs of their individual lives. Finck plans to move to New York next year, but the group itself will remain based in Baltimore as Tan finishes her degree and other quartet members pursue teaching and other freelance opportunities.
More immediate on their horizon are their upcoming concerts: On May 18, Bergamot Quartet will perform as part of the Union Square Chamber Music Society, a series modeled on Groupmuse, which provides pop-up concerts in private homes. Their program includes works by John Luther Adams, Jessie Montgomery, and for the finale, Beethoven.
Over the summer, Bergamot Quartet will travel to New York to take part in the two-week Next Festival of Emerging Artists, a program designed for classical musicians intent on carving out self-made careers; they also look forward to returning to Banff. Beyond the upcoming year, the future is a little hazy, but throughout it all, they’re grateful to call Baltimore home. “We love it here,” said Finck. “In Baltimore specifically there is so much room to do things. I feel really invested in being part of that energy.”
Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.