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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 5, 2000. All rights reserved.
Matched Set at SummerFest: Amabile
A new feature at Rutgers’ SummerFest 2000, a series
of 17 concerts at Nicholas Music Center on the Douglass College campus,
are four family-friendly Wednesday events, organized by the Mason
Gross School of the Arts faculty, with the participation of MGSA students.
The Alumni Reunion concert, set for Wednesday, July 12, at 8 p.m.,
features participants who studied at Mason Gross during the 1990s.
Among them is the Amabile String Quartet, led by violinist Ruotao
Mao; Qiang Chu, now a cellist with the New York Philharmonic; tenor
John Uhlenhopp; violinist Valissa Willwerth of the Princeton Chamber
Symphony; sopranos Judith Burbank, Rachel Joselson, and Diana Livingston;
and duo-pianists Rachel Heard and Lynn Raly.
A look at the Amabile Quartet, recently appointed quartet-in-residence
at Mason Gross, provides an intriguing snapshot of a young, early
career chamber ensemble of the 21st century.
Ruotao Mao, 33, Amabile’s first violinist, lived in Beijing, China,
until age 17. The only child of a father who was a professor of esthetics
and a mother who edited a geology journal, at 15 he made the double
decision to pursue a career as a violinist, and to come to the United
States. Encouraged by a visiting professor from the New England Conservatory
of Music, he packed up for Boston in 1985.
"I left China when it was just beginning to open up," says
Mao, in a conversation from his home in Highland Park. "It’s easier
now, but I didn’t have much difficulty. I had a clean background politically
and I had financial support in the United States because of a distant
relative in Houston."
The transition to America was easy, Mao says. His English, learned
at a Beijing high school, was British, and he shed the accent in favor
of American speech soon after his arrival. "People say you have
cultural shock," he says, "but I didn’t, mainly because I
went to a conservatory and was happy to live in that environment.
People were very friendly and they were interested in music. I loved
the pizza and the Burger King breakfasts."
Mao studied with pedagogue Dorothy DeLay (U.S. 1, May 24, 2000) at
the New England Conservatory, where he earned a bachelor’s degree
in 1989. He received a master’s degree at the MGSA in 1991 and is
currently working on an artist’s diploma there.
At Rutgers, he met his wife, cellist Mikyung Lee. The couple now has
a 13-month old son, Terrence. Mao’s mother, is visiting the United
States and helping to take care of her grandchild.
Mao is the sole remaining founding member of the Amabile
Quartet, which dates from 1991. The ensemble has survived personnel
changes, as well as a two-year hiatus that began in 1994. Its present
personnel date from what Mao calls its "rebirth," in 1996.
Besides Mao members of the ensemble are Jennifer Williams, violin;
Meng-Chun Chi, viola, and Mikyung Lee, cello, Mao’s wife. Jennifer
is from St. Paul, Minnesota; Meng, from Taiwan; and Mikyung, from
Seoul, Korea. Lee has been with the group since 1996; Williams and
Chi, since 1998. Mao is the oldest member of the group, whose ages
range from 27 to 33.
The various ethnic backgrounds of the quartet members make no differences
in the music, says Mao. "We’ve all been educated here," he
says, "so music-wise our approach is similar. There’s less difference
among us than if a European-trained person comes and tries to work
with the quartet."
Mao admits, however, that Asians tend to be more disciplined than
Americans. "In China," he says, "you must be perfect or
your teacher will throw you out. The good thing is that Asian teaching
builds a solid technique. The drawback is narrowness and a lack of
freedom. If Americans discipline themselves, they can be outstanding,
but many Americans don’t do that."
Individually and collectively the Amabile has an imposing record of
winning prizes and performing in the United States and abroad. The
quartet won recognition in 1999 and 2000 at the international Fischoff
Competition in South Bend, Indiana, for young chamber ensembles.
One of the ensemble’s chief tasks at the moment is building repertoire.
They learn three or four new works each semester. "To choose new
pieces," says Mao, "everybody brings in works to read. We
have dinner together — we rotate cooks. Then we talk about issues
until hopefully we all agree."
Democracy reigns in the quartet. In rehearsal, says Mao "Anybody
speaks up at any point on any issue. We try to be polite. Mainly you
focus on the music, not on each other’s playing. When you see a problem
you have to be frank, but bring it up nicely."
In March the Amabile was granted the loan of a set of matched instruments
made by Hiroshi Iizuka, who learned his craft in Germany and came
to the United States in the 1970s. The instruments were constructed
with an eye to having them blend sonically. Iizuka’s instruments are
becoming the choices of discriminating chamber music performers. Both
violinist Steinhardt and violist Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartets
perform on them. Mao has followed his mentor Steinhardt’s lead, and
also uses an Iizuka violin.
Iizuka’s set of matched instruments were purchased by a Pennsylvania
investor, and Iizuka suggested Amabile as their possible users. Young
string players today can rarely afford to buy the instruments they
need to present their playing at its best. A desirable 18th-century
violin can easily cost over $100,000. Frequently, benefactors make
available quality instruments to promising musicians at the beginnings
of their careers.
After trying out the Iizuka instruments at the donor’s home in March
the Amabile signed a one-year renewable contract that permits them
to use the instruments. The donor is obligated to pay for yearly maintenance
of the instruments; the Amabile foots the bill for insurance.
The ensemble used the loan instruments in a stunning concert on the
Douglass campus in May. Iizuka heard his handiwork for the first time
and was pleased. The quartet plans to use the matched set for future
The Amabile’s tenure as quartet in residence at MGSA begins in January,
2001, and the quartet is expected to give at least one concert each
— Elaine Strauss
Center, Douglass Campus, New Brunswick, 732-932-7511. Reunion concert
with the Amabile Quartet, $10. Wednesday, July 12, 8 p.m.
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