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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

Alumni Night, Rutgers SummerFest, Nicholas Music

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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