SARATOGA SPRINGS — Ten years ago, Michael Emery, a violinist who is an artist-in-residence at Skidmore College, had an idea to host a string festival at the college that would be open to younger players who would be mentored over a two-day period by a professional string quartet.
That blossomed into a reality, and this weekend the college will celebrate the ninth annual Skidmore String Festival. The American String Quartet will provide the instruction, the inspiration and the star power.
“My idea really had a threefold component,” Emery said. “One was to help students to be coached in an immersion of quartet playing. The second was to use the festival as a recruiting tool for avid string players who were coming to the college as liberal arts majors and to see that we had a serious string program. And I wanted to involve community high school students for them to watch, hear and participate at the festival.”
Skidmore String Festival
WHERE: Zankel Music Center, Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs
WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday with the American String Quartet; 2 p.m. Sunday with the American and the eight student quartets
HOW MUCH: Saturday, $8, $5, free to students/children; Sunday, free
MORE INFO: 580-5321, www.skidmore.edu/zankel
Developing a system
All this took a lot of phone calls and reaching out to area teachers, coaches and college faculty in the first two years to find the talent, he said, but now he has a system that flows. The students are all members of string quartets. They are coming from the Empire State Youth Orchestra, Skidmore and high schools in Manchester, N.H.; Norwalk, Conn.; and Vermont. Some come through recommendations, others sent in CDs or had videos posted on YouTube, which Emery and other college faculty viewed.
“These are all serious players who love string playing and work hard at it,” he said.
As for the professional string quartet, the festival has hosted the Brentano, the Hawthorne, the Manhattan, the Lydian, the Ying twice, and the American, which returns this season. Because there are only four professional players to go around, logistics dictate there can only be eight student quartets.
Each will be coached in two-hour blocks on Friday and Saturday on a movement of a quartet of their own choosing and on a movement from Dvorák’s “American Quartet” that the groups and the American will perform in Sunday’s concert. The pieces the student quartets chose include works by Schubert, Beethoven, Borodin, Mozart, Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, which will also be performed on Sunday.
What does the American think about all this?
“It’s very important to do these types of festivals,” said violist Daniel Avshalomov. “We once ran a heavy educational program for 20 summers in Taos for eight weeks. So this is not unfamiliar territory.”
As a founding member of the American, which was formed in 1974 when the original members were still students at the Juilliard School, Avshalomov said working with high-school students was a way to encourage and inform a future audience.
“It takes us back to school days when we went to New York City schools and learned our craft that way,” he said. “The coachings open doors and minds — as to why we play a piece and that there’s not just one way to play them. There are many ways. Each quartet has to re-create the wheel — to find their way into the music.”
Sometimes a young quartet may come up with an idea that the American likes so much that “we steal it and make it our own,” Avshalomov said with a laugh.
The festival is, however, more than just about playing.
“We’re having the American close at hand,” Emery said. “We’ll have dinner together, watch them perform. It’s exciting and motivating and the kids will want to work harder.”
Avshalomov said it helps that this is the second time the quartet will be on campus.
“We know the level of students and we can tailor to their needs,” he said.
One of things he and his colleagues, which include violinists Peter Winograd and Laurie Carney, and cellist Wolfram Koessel, want to impress upon the students, is what a life in music, especially in the rarified world of the string quartet, is all about.
“I have all the scars to show for it,” Avshalomov said.
The quartet’s career was launched even before the group had a name. The same year the players got together, the quartet won the Coleman Competition and the Naumburg Chamber Music Award.
“We didn’t know how long the quartet would go and since the bicentennial was looming, the American was chosen,” Avshalomov said. “No one had any objection to that one.”
After their New York City debut in 1975 and numerous U.S. tours, the group toured Taiwan (in 1979 when few Chinese spoke English, which was a real challenge, he said), Europe in 1980, Japan in 1991, all 50 U.S. states in 1999 and China in 2005. They’ve even been to Iceland in the winter.
Add to that numerous premieres of commissioned works by such composers as George Tsontakis and Richard Danielpour, recordings on six different labels and long-term residencies at the Aspen Music Festival (since 1974) and at the Manhattan School of Music (since 1984). In all, the quartet does about 75 concerts a year.
“The string quartet is the last working democracy,” Avshalomov said. “No one tells us how to play. All have an equal voice from the music to the schedule. The repertoire is luxurious and we are entirely in love with it. But it is intense work. There are four distinct ideas that don’t instantly fit together. We need flexibility and a deep devotion to the repertoire — and a sense of humor.”
As for life on the road, the American will try to dispel the glamour, Avshalomov said.
“But being in different countries has different flavors of audiences, which is a joy,” he said.
The American will play alone on Saturday night in a concert that will include three Bach Preludes and Fugues, which Avshalomov arranged; Shostakovich’s Quartet No. 3, whose first movement is “a sarcastic take on fugal writing”; and Beethoven’s Quartet Op. 131, whose final movement is a great fugue. The quartet chose this “fugal” program because it will give listeners a chance to focus on the independence of the various voices, he said.
Emery can hardly wait.
“It’s all very exhilarating,” he said.