For its 40th season Princeton University Summer Concerts imports a group of ensembles, all of them younger than the beloved series of chamber concerts, which began in 1969 and take place in Princeton’s Richardson Auditorium.
The oldest ensembles among this year’s performers are the Aulos Ensemble (performing on Tuesday, July 15), a period instrument group founded in 1973, four years after the summer chamber concerts began and the Peabody Trio, which dates from 1988 and opened the series last week. The Parker Quartet, scheduled for Thursday, July 10, was in its infancy when Barbara Sand, the well-remembered founder of the summer series, died in December, 2003. The Escher Quartet, scheduled for Thursday, June 26, didn’t even exist at the time.
More recent than the last presidential election, the Escher Quartet, formed in 2005, is a cornucopia of novelties. Their June 26 program is part of a campaign to give the music of Alexander Zemlinsky a hearing. Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 3 is included in the program, along with Bela Bartok’s third string quartet and Antonin Dvorak’s “American” Quartet.
Members of the Escher Quartet are Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie, violins; Pierre Lapointe, viola; and Andrew Janss, cello. In a telephone interview from his apartment on New York’s upper West side violinist Barnett-Hart says, “We’re showcasing Zemlinsky. He’s a neglected composer. We’ll be playing three of his four quartets at Caramoor (the music center in New York’s Westchester County).”
The quartet programs Bartok not only in standard concert halls but also for nightclub performances. “Bartok goes over well in nightclubs,” Barnett-Hart says. “People who attend nightclubs are used to rock. And fans of rock understand Bartok’s music. It’s rhythmic and direct. Zemlinsky’s not so easy for them. He’s more intellectual.”
The compositions of Zemlinsky (1871-1942) are a link between those of his supporter, Johannes Brahms, and those of the next generation of composers, including Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. Born in Vienna, he died in the United States. He fled Hitler’s Germany in 1938.
The Escher Quartet takes its name from the Dutch graphic artist M. C. Escher (1898-1972), whose works build on optical illusions and impossible perspectives. Escher fills the picture plane with fish swimming in opposing directions or angels alternating with bats. Waterfalls appear to flow upwards; the direction of staircases in buildings is ambiguous.
The Quartet chose the name after considering many possibilities. “We like the way Escher brings together different elements to form a whole. And we like his paradoxes,” Barnett-Hart says.
The quartet has catapulted to a solid reputation chiefly because they sounded so good to so many people. Three years after its founding, they have already completed the first year of a three-year residency at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music II program. “Playing in New York City is a great opportunity,” Barnett-Hart says. “Audiences know the literature, and are more demanding than elsewhere. We get reviewed in the New York Times. All of that makes us play better than we otherwise might.”
In addition to Chamber Music II the Eschers have captured two other residencies. They have a one-year appointment as the Ernst Stiefel Quartet-in-Residence at Westchester’s Caramoor Festival, and have been appointed Visiting Artists-in-Residence at Stony Brook University under a free-wheeling arrangement with the Emerson Quartet, the resident Artists-in-Residence at Stony Brook, who have taken the Eschers under their wing.
Copying their mentors, the Emerson Quartet, the Eschers, except for cellist Janss, stand up in performance. “Standing up is what the upper strings do normally when they perform.” Barnett-Hart says. “It avoids being cramped in a chair.”
The Eschers move minimally on stage. “That’s common among younger artists,” Barnett-Hart says. “Slightly older artists like violinist Joshua Bell move a lot.” Indeed, Bell stops just short of dancing when he performs. “Heifetz and artists of the generations before Bell moved very little,” Barnett-Hart says. “We go back to that tradition. Movement is distracting.”
Unlike chamber musicians who maintain contact with each other by exchanging glances, the Eschers use few visual cues. Their DVD of Felix Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 2 shows four performers behaving almost like a group of strangers in an elevator, conscientiously avoiding eye contact with one another. “Many people have noticed that,” Barnett-Hart says. “We listen and feel the music together. It’s the influence of David Soyer (the former cellist of the Guarneri Quartet), with whom we coached at the Manhattan School of Music. He stressed basics: intonation, rhythm, accuracy, and articulation. Those things are more important than how you behave when you perform. I’ve heard the Vermeer Quartet, where the eyes of each player were glued on their own music and their playing was totally together.”
The operations of the quartet are gradually jelling. They spend a lot of time in rehearsal at the moment, racing to build a repertoire for their growing number of engagements. “We’re learning 12 to 15 new quartets a year,” says Barnett-Hart. “It’s stressful. There are no strategies to make it easy to perform a new piece for the first time. We like to play a new piece in a non-standard venue before we play it in a public concert.”
Members of the quartet perform separately but at present their main interest is the quartet. Within the quartet, Barnett-Hart plays first violin, and Wu Jie occupies the second violin spot. “We tried rotating positions, but it was like playing in a different quartet,” Barnett-Hart says. In contrast, the Emerson Quartet has distinguished itself by trading off first and second violin roles, on the theory that switching places increases the versatility of the ensemble.
Within the Escher Quartet, the personalities of the individual members have led to their informally assuming particular roles in the ensemble. “I’m specially interested in organizing things,” Barnett-Hart says. “I like to see that we rehearse what we have to, and fit it all in. Wu Jie is interested in details. I want to get on with things.”
Barnett-Hart was born in Eugene, Oregon, in 1983 and grew up in Boulder, Colorado. He says that his parents are not musical. His father is a physics professor. His mother did not work professionally. “She wasn’t a stay-at-home mom,” Barnett-Hart says. “She was a three-children-with-music-lessons mom. She helped all of us and was the Suzuki parent, who went with me to my violin lessons when I started when I was four.”
Barnett-Hart’s two siblings are both serious about pursuing music. His sister, Anna Katherine, two years his junior, is a violinist who attended New York’s Juilliard School for a year and is now a student at Harvard. His brother Colin, seven years younger, is a high school senior who will enter Northwestern University in the fall; he is a pianist.
Recently transplanted, Barnett-Hart relishes living in New York City and exploring the city’s possibilities. He gets his exercise in Central Park. And he is discovering the universe of Manhattan’s restaurants.
The Escher Quartet, Thursday, June 26, 8 p.m., Princeton University Summer Concerts, Richardson Auditorium. Bartok, von Zemlinsky, and Dvorak. Free tickets available at the box office at 6:30 p.m. People with disabilities may reserve tickets at 609 631-7884 by 5 p.m. the Friday before a concert. 609-631-7884.
The series concludes with the Parker Quartet on Thursday, July 10, and the Aulos Ensemble on Tuesday, July 15.