On October 5, 2016 Ulysses Quartet—Christina Bouey (Violin), Rhiannon Banerdt (Violin), Colin Brookes (Viola), and Grace Ho (Cello)—performed two works about love: Anton Webern’s Langsamer Satz; and Leoš Janáček’s String Quartet No. 2, Intimate Letters.
Love was in the air—or rather two loves. One, from Webern, was all pleasure and joy. The other, from Janáček, had that feel of torture fueled by momentary flashes of hope that anyone who has known unrequited love will find familiar.
Perhaps though, the overriding love was for the music itself—emanating from the stage, reaching us in the seats. This was music that compelled you to find it on Youtube the following days. But when you listened to these same two pieces in sequence again and again, each time there would be a bit disappointment that you couldn’t find the magnificent Ulysses Quartet giving its rendition.
Theirs was a flawless performance with great depth of feeling. They made it seem effortless. Actually, talking with them before the performance it was clear that the Quartet prides itself on devoting time to long rehearsals together—and play time too—such that they know each other’s musicality intimately. It shows, or rather, it sounds so.
Ulysses Quartet meets Janáček Challenge
Each member of the quartet agreed that the Janáček piece was the more challenging, but had different takes on what made it so. Christina Bouey says, “Whomever heard our Janáček at Dame Myra Hess would agree that the piece is absolutely insane in the best way possible. Our biggest challenge was being able to keep control over the piece because we are all very passionate about the piece, and it’s very easy for us to get so emotionally involved. Sometimes this would cause us to rush a section because we were so charged with energy, when really, some sections need to pull back.
Fellow violinist Rhiannon Banerdt adds, “…it’s probably the third movement of Janáček that was most challenging. It took a lot of experimentation to get the exact sound and color we wanted in the slower parts. From there it was more work to fit it together seamlessly with the faster, chattering music.”
Violist Colin Brookes amplified these sentiments, saying, “… there are so many dramatic transitions to work out. This involves working out how to connect the smaller sections, how much time to take, and how to launch ourselves into the next section…It is such an intense and wild piece that we have to work out how to manage our own emotions and pace our energy through the four movements.”
And then cellist Grace Ho adds, “The most challenging to master as a group was probably all the pauses in between sections in each movement in Janáček. We experimented a lot with different timings, ways to end and start a new thematic material, dynamics, tempi, etc. Another challenge towards mastering is that there are multiple editions of scores to this piece, and each edition has something completely different than the others editions. So as a group we had to decide on which interpretation works best for us, and speaks to us the most.”
Four Strong Personalities—One String Quartet
Though they come at it with different angles, what they have in common is a deep commitment to the hard work that makes their performances so stellar, as it certainly was, at the Dame Myra Hess Concert performance in Chicago’s Cultural Center, also simulcast on WFMT.
Christina Bouey describes the “secret sauce” of their collaboration by saying, “We all think about music in completely different ways and I think it’s a brilliant thing to have in a group. We all have things we care about and push forward in rehearsals, whether it’s color, phrasing, intonation, dynamics, rhythm, etc. Because of our different minds, we are able to see all sides of the spectrum and it makes for a more exciting performance. One thing we all see eye to eye on is energy in concert. We are very outgoing as people and musicians, and I think that is very evident to the audience how much fun we are having.”
Rhiannon Banerdt adds, “I think each of us brings certain skills we’ve cultivated based on the work that we did before coming to Ulysses that contribute to the ensemble running smoothly. I’ve done a lot of teaching, playing, and working in very diverse groups, which gives me a lot of experience understanding where people are coming from and in trying to bridge differences. That helps me facilitate communication in our group and to find different ways that we can try to combine our ideas.”
Ulysses Quartet Members’ Musical Pedigrees
Banerdt goes way back with string quartet performances, starting at the age of 13 when the Colburn School in Los Angeles placed her in the honors quartet. Colin Brookes started at that same age of 13, when a music festival run by musicians of the Pittsburgh Symphony gave him his first chance to, as he puts it, “experience the excitement of learning a piece together”. Grace Ho played in her first quartet in high school, and Christina Bouey comments, “Chamber music has been a huge part of my life. I have been a part of many piano trios, and quartets since I started my Bachelor’s Degree at the Boston Conservatory and later when I continued my advanced studies at the Manhattan School of Music.”
While each member of the quartet has many other musical gigs and credits—both Rhiannon and Christina are concertmasters with orchestras, Colin works with many chamber ensembles and Grace is principal cellist in the Miami Symphony Orchestra—you sense that this gig, their Ulysses Quartet performances, does something very special for each of them.
Grace Ho, for example, says, “Being a part of Ulysses Quartet gives me the opportunity to express myself more freely and to make music on a more personal and intimate level. It involves a great deal of detail work, exploration and dedication. Also, the string quartet repertoire is just to die for!”
Rhiannon adds, “Through our countless hours of rehearsal we learn each others’ artistic voices so well that we really have the opportunity to collaborate on a much deeper level and give each other greater freedom of expression than groups that meet sporadically. It also means that we can challenge each other—sometimes it’s like having three personal coaches in your practice room every day!”
Fun Watching Ulysses Quartet Perform
For those of us in Preston Bradley Hall the magnetism and cohesion within the group was most apparent by the many ways one could see them cueing each other—often with smiles, a lean of the body, or just a raised eyebrow. This relay of cues from one to the next, sometimes so subtle you had to squint to see it and other times with gestures that seemed like almost grand telegraphs of transitions to come, made them extremely enjoyable to watch. Colin says, “A lot of our communication comes from trust. We move and breathe together in a way that allows visual cues to only provide more security. In general, it is easiest to follow Tina because her approach to melodic material commands the group’s cohesion.” Christina (Tina) adds, “..We also practice our cues A LOT, so that we feel comfortable once it is performance time…we feel good about following each other.”
Food, Hot Tubs, Movies, Hiking—Hanging Out
Tight, cohesive—those words describe their entire performance. We learn this cohesion is bred both in rehearsals and in group fun outings around them. Speaking for the group, Christina shares, “We actually hang out quite a bit which is quite rare for a quartet. One of our favorite things to do is going out for great food! What we do together is dependent on where we are. When we were in Banff, AB, Canada for the Banff Competition, we made sure we stopped rehearsal by 9:20 every night so we would have enough time to get to the hot tub before it closed at 10. We clearly had our priorities in order! Some days, we also did group hikes up the Rocky Mountains. Sometimes when we are on the road, we get tired, so we like to also relax and watch a movie.”
Ulysses Quartet Coming Soon!
And they especially like to eat together! Look on these pages for restaurant reviews from Ulysses Quartet of restaurants they visit before and after rehearsals and on the road as they tour.