In eager anticipation, we asked the all-alumna Excelsa Quartet - violinists Laura Colgate '06, '09 G.D. and Audrey Wright '11, '13 M.M., violist Valentina Shohdy '10 M.M., cellist Kacy Clopton '09 M.M., '10 G.D. - about their process, their beginnings, and their collaboration with John Heiss.
Tell us a little bit about how Excelsa Quartet was formed. Excelsa Quartet was formed in January of 2009 while its members were studying at the New England Conservatory. It was quartet love-at-first-sight upon meeting at one of NEC's famous Chamber Music Speed Dating parties (super fun, fast-paced, rotating chamber music reading parties), and the rest is history!
We love to hear how chamber groups work together behind the scenes. Could you share how Excelsa Quartet approaches preparation and rehearsal? In general, Excelsa approaches the interpretation of a piece from a collective viewpoint. Decisions about musical phrasing, character, tempi, bowings, and anything else related to interpreting a piece of music are all made in rehearsals through a process of experimentation; by keeping a group sense of curiosity and open-mindedness, we eventually discover what feels right in the music. And when we feel stuck in rehearsal with a particular phrase, we always sing it!
Your group participated in the St. Lawrence String Quartet (SLSQ) Emerging String Quartet Program this season – what impact do you think it had on how you present your music to audiences? One of the things SLSQ does so beautifully is that they integrate talking and performing in concert settings ranging from community venues to big halls. Excelsa has been very inspired by this sweeping approach to audience engagement, and virtually all of our concerts now include an element of talking to the audience from the stage. We find that by explaining various elements of a piece or talking about why the music excites us, the performance becomes a more meaningful and exciting experience for our audience.
How did your collaboration with John Heiss come to be? One year ago, we approached our dear friend, mentor, and professor from our days at NEC, John Heiss, and asked him if he had written any string quartets, and if he hadn't, would he be interested in writing one for us. And, surprisingly he was totally down to do it.
It's a set of eight microcosms, short, little pieces, all of which are gems. Each one has its own character, whimsy, and poignancy. It's just such an exciting project. The fact that this is the first quartet that John has written is really, really special. We are so honored to be able to do this together; it's like exploring a new world. It has been close to five years since Excelsa last performed in Boston, and we are beyond thrilled to finally return for this performance. It is such an honor to be giving the world premiere of this amazing new piece in the city of our musical roots!
About Excelsa Quartet
First Prize winners of "The Provincie Limburg Prijs" along with the “EMCY Artprize” at the Charles Hennen 26th International Chamber Music Competition for Strings in The Netherlands, Excelsa Quartet is now the Graduate Fellowship String Quartet at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD.
Excelsa Quartet was formed in January of 2009 at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. They continued their studies at the Konservatorium Dreilinden in Luzern, Switzerland, and in the Professional Quartet Training Program under the tutelage of the Alban Berg Quartet at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln in Germany. In 2011, Excelsa Quartet won the ‘Prix du Jury “Jeunes Musiciens” et du Public’ at the Illzach 17th International Chamber Music Competition in France. As regular participants in the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme (Aldeburgh, UK) since 2009, the Quartet has worked with Isabel Charisius (Alban Berg Quartet), Ilan Gronich (Israel Quartet), Sebastian Hamann, the Pavel Haas Quartet, and Quatuor Mosaiques. They have also attended the St. Lawrence String Quartet Seminar in Stanford, CA (2014) and the McGill International String Quartet Academy in Montreal, QC (2014).
For the 2014-15 Season, Excelsa Quartet was granted a Fall residency at the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s “Emerging String Quartet Program” at Stanford University, giving them a unique opportunity to perform in various concert and community settings in Stanford, CA. Other season highlights in the Washington DC metro area include performances at the Arts Club of Washington, Kent Chamber Music, and “Common Tone” series at Busboys and Poets.
The Quartet has had the honor of working with members of the Guarneri Quartet, Left Bank Quartet, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Cleveland Quartet, James Stern, André Roy, Roger Tapping (Juilliard Quartet), David Takeno, Lucy Chapman and world renowned conductor Benjamin Zander. They have also collaborated with the Miami String Quartet and with composers John Heiss and Wolfgang Rihm.
Excelsa Quartet takes its name from “Picea excelsa”, a distinct species of Northern European spruce trees used to make the top panel of fine string instruments.