When the Dover Quartet will arrive in Hong Kong on the heels of their exciting 2018, they will be primed to help celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Beare’s Premiere Music Festival. Launched in 2009 and formerly called the Hong Kong International Chamber Music Festival, this international event brings world-class musicians to Hong Kong to make classical music accessible to all. The tenth anniversary edition will take place from 16 to 24 January 2019, featuring 22 musicians playing in five concerts. 

For the Quartet this is going to be the first trip to Hong Kong. So far they played summer festivals in Massachusetts, Oregon, Edinburgh, Wyoming's Grand Tetons, and Santa Fe. They premiered new music by Nokuthula Ngwenyama, Andy Akiho, and Caroline Shaw. They played quartets by Viktor Ullmann and Szymon Laks from their Voices of Defiance CD. They ranged through core repertoire from Haydn and Mozart to Bartók and Borodin. They released a new CD of Mozart quartets and quintets honoring Guarneri Quartet violist Michael Tree. 

The Dover Quartet: L to R Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Camden Shaw and Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt © Dover Quartet
The Dover Quartet: L to R Joel Link, Bryan Lee, Camden Shaw and Milena Pajaro-Van De Stadt
© Dover Quartet

To find out what they were thinking about their upcoming Hong Kong performance, I met up with them in Santa Monica, California where they were preparing for several private concerts. 

To say they were excited is an understatement. Beyond the Festival, they mentioned hiking and food. They couldn't wait to find out if what a colleague had told them was true, that "visiting Hong Kong makes you feel like the States is living in the past. Hong Kong feels like the future. Everything is more advanced than we have seen here."

Each of the four musicians spoke as they had played when I heard the final installment of their Beethoven cycle at the 2017 Montréal Chamber Music Festival, blending together their voices into one: First violinist Joel Link's sense of vision and wonder, second violinist Bryan Lee's more forceful expressive accents, violist Milena Pajaro-Van de Stadt's enthusiasm and charisma, and cellist Camden Shaw's precision and warmth.

As with so many great young musicians, the Dover's connection to the Beare's Premiere Music Festival runs through its Artistic Director, Cho-Liang "Jimmy" Lin. "We've known him for years," Pajaro-Van de Stadt said. "We first met him even before we went to Rice University. After he invited us to the La Jolla Music Society's SummerFest a few years ago, he invited us to Hong Kong, but we couldn't make it that year because of a scheduling conflict. Now that we're going we're all very excited."

In addition to affirming their arrival as one of the world's foremost young quartets, the Festival gave the Dovers a chance to reconnect with Avi Avital, the superstar mandolinist who is playing such a large role at the Festival this year and with whom they have often toured. That means Vivaldi's C major Mandolin Concerto, folk music sets by Bartok and Georgian composer Sulkhan Tsintsadze, and David Bruce's Cymbeline, reminiscent of Vivaldi.

The Dover Quartet will take the stage by themselves on their first night, January 18, for Dvořák's late masterwork, the Quartet in A flat major, Op. 105. "I love how fresh and inspired it sounds," Link said, "as if Dvorak was at the beginning of an exciting new chapter in his work - despite it being his very last quartet!"

Lee added: "The piece is strikingly virtuosic, and expects more agility and flair from the individual players than his earlier quartets. And yet, for all its physical demands one of our biggest musical challenges is finding the right balance between the simplicity and the drama of the slow movement's beautiful tune."

Beyond the specific challenges of the Dvorak, will be those that every musician faces: keeping their work fresh. Camden explained: "As our career has developed, and we have been fortunate to be able to play music we love for many different audiences, we have come to regard each concert like a photograph of the Quartet at one moment. And because we're always grappling with where we want to be headed artistically, there is something profoundly relaxing about that snapshot."

The Dover Quartet © Carlin Ma
The Dover Quartet
© Carlin Ma

"It may sound like a contradiction but in fact, we take it as an opportunity to trust one another even more fully than usual and to let the music take hold. We all believe that it is at such times, when performers truly forget themselves, abandon their neuroses and stresses and expectations, that greatness can be achieved."

Kenneth Goldsmith was, along with Lin, one of the Quartet's mentors at Rice University's Shepherd School of Music. When I asked him what has made the Dovers so special, he said the Dovers were "a remarkable quartet from their very beginning at Rice. They had been together at Curtis for five years and played with perfect intonation and ensemble. Their challenge was to raise the level of their musical understanding." They worked hard, Goldsmith said. "They insisted on playing every movement of all the Haydn Quartets before choosing the ones that appealed to their specific tastes. They concentrated on musical gesture and interpretation, and they understood the importance of developing a personal style."

The Quartet rose to international prominence after winning the Banff International String Quartet Competition in 2013. They now play more than 100 concerts a year in locations spanning four continents and they're the Quartet in Residence at both the Kennedy Center and Northwestern University's Bienen School of Music. In other words, the Dovers were an ideal quartet to succeed their illustrious string quartet predecessors that performed at the Hong Kong festival: Borromeo, Emerson, Escher, Jerusalem, Miró, RTHK, Shanghai, Doric, and Danish.

They understood how fortunate they had been in winning at Banff. "It was surreal," Shaw said, "amazing. We always felt that if we won Banff so many great things could come out of it. And now more has happened from that than we could have ever imagined."

In September, when they played Schubert's great G major Quartet D. 887 for the first time, it was in Sleepy Hollow, New York, and it kicked off an American tour that included an all Beethoven concert for Italian billionaire Nicola Bulgari at his Automotive Heritage Museum in the Lehigh Valley near Philadelphia, containing on its 21 acres and seven compounds, 150 fully restored vintage American automobiles. Shaw laid out the intriguing story: "We met Mr. Bulgari because he wanted to be involved with a performance of ours in Carnegie Hall - A Carnegie Hall Notables event - which he underwrote, involving a lot of young business owners and getting them involved in Carnegie Hall. It worked out, however, that he could not attend so we ended up connecting with him and playing at his Automotive Heritage Museum where he has a collection going back to the Model T." 

"It was cool that we had so much in common, being in love with art that lived a long time ago, and pursuing how to make them live again. It's analogous to what we musicians do when we interpret music that's been written 200 years ago. The museum's workshop restores cars to the point where they look and behave as if they were brand new. It looks like you had walked into an old movie set. The levels to which they go just to restore fabric are incredible; sometimes they will first fix the old textile machines that had been used originally."

In 2017 the Quartet launched a Kickstarter project to fund a full-length documentary, to be shot in North America and Austria, that would "reveal the passionate, thriving world of chamber music in the 21st century" and show that "classical music is thriving." It was in final editing when I talked to the Quartet. "Our plan, our hope," Shaw said, "is to release the final product in time to submit it to film festivals this fall. We want to broaden the audience for classical music, not necessarily the market for movies about classical music. We want to reach more people for classical music through a medium that is not used so much by classical musicians." Looking at the brilliant clip on their website you can see it's going to be a strong awards contender; it's fast, clever, funny, and musically riveting. 

The Dover Quartet © Carlin Ma
The Dover Quartet
© Carlin Ma

Overall it's a reflection of the Quartet's determination to create their own narrative as an artistic entity. Whether's it producing an exceptional multimedia product like their new documentary, or deciding what repertoire to play or where to play it, as Link told me, "We very much decide what we want to have happen. There's a lot of delegation, we have a manager, we're involved in some consulting for career development." It sounds like they're in charge.

As the interview was winding down I asked them why they read read their parts from touchscreen computer tablets instead of conventional paper scores. "It's great," Lee said. "When we're rehearsing we can make changes in dynamics and phrasing on the screens as we go, and keep all the changes in case we want to go back or experiment. If we're playing something that's not already been digitized, it's very easy to buy the music, take photos, scan it in, and turn out PDFs." The secret, he said, is "good lighting." 

When I asked how long a late Beethoven quartet take to digitize, Lee told me, "a couple of minutes." When I asked about the Schubert G major, they all laughed. Pajaro-Van de Stadt explained, "It took a while. There are a lot of pages in the Schubert G major."

 

This article was sponsored by Beare's Premiere Music Festival