Jessica Thompson, violist of the Daedalus String Quartet, observes that the lifestyles of orchestral players and members of string quartets diverge. “In a string quartet,” she says, “there is more individual freedom, you have more of a say in decision making, and there is more intimacy.” From its beginnings, the Daedalus has gone to the extreme of letting both first and second violinists take on leadership roles by having them switch positions.
“In an orchestra,” says Thompson, “there is less travel, you have a steady salary, and if you’re the concertmaster, you can put your individual stamp on the orchestra. It’s a trade-off.” Formed in 2000, early in its history Daedalus lost its violist to the Philadelphia Orchestra. Last year one of its founding violinists left for an orchestral position.
Members of the ensemble are Min-Young Kim and Ara Gregorian, violins; Thompson, viola; and Raman Ramakrishnan, cello. The Daedalus plays during the Raritan River Music Festival on Saturday, May 21, in the Stanton Reformed Church.
Entering its 22d year, the four-concert chamber music festival takes place on Saturday evenings beginning May 7 at scenic venues in west central New Jersey. The Daedalus performance is the third event of the season. Tempesta di Mare, a baroque trio, opens the series at Prallsville Mills on May 7. The Borealis Wind Quintet plays in Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church on May 14. Brazilian singer Clarice Assad joins Festival founders, duo guitarists Michael Newman and Laura Oltman, for the final concert in Clinton Presbyterian Church on May 28.
The Daedalus program consists of string quartets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as the New Jersey premiere of Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Richard Wernick’s String Quartet No. 8.
Tracing the evolution of the Wernick piece from a bright idea to its festive premiere, violist Thompson describes a random journey consisting of happy accidents, newly discovered histories, and tenacity. “We were asked to play Wernick’s Quartet No. 6 at a celebration for his 75th birthday in Philadelphia,” Thompson says. The anniversary was in January, 2009. “We loved the piece, he liked the way we played it, and he approached us about writing his Quartet No. 8 for Daedalus.”
Perhaps the bond between composer and performers was particularly strong because of their connections to the University of Pennsylvania. Wernick had been a faculty member at the Philadelphia school and Daedalus was serving a residency there. “We all looked for grants and had no luck,” Thompson says.
“In 2009 and 2010 the Daedalus Quartet had a residency project at schools on Long Island,” Thompson says. “We visited schools and played for students. In Bay Shore, we mentioned to Susan Barbash [a member of the board of the Bay Shore Schools Arts Education Fund (BSSAEF), which sponsored the Daedalus’ Bay Shore component] in passing that Wernick was writing a quartet for us.”
BSSAEF’s chief mission is to enhance direct participation in the arts for all Bay Shore students. An established community leader, Barbash, a Bay Shore native, knew Wernick because he had been the composer in residence at Bay Shore in the 1960s. During the residency Wernick wrote his String Quartet No. 1 for a talented Bay Shore student group. Barbash decided that BSSAEF should fund the writing of Wernick’s Quartet No. 8 for Daedalus.
“The premiere of Dick’s Quartet No. 8 took place at Bay Shore in the fall,” Thompson says. “We had been searching for about a year before all the connections fell into place by a series of happy coincidences. The premiere was a gala event in memory of Howard Koch, the man who had been the Bay Shore orchestra director when Dick was in residence.”
Daedalus had no input into the Wernick piece, Thompson says. “We find it better to let a composer write what he or she wants. Usually composers have a pretty good idea of what they want to say.
“We’re very glad that Dick gave the quartet to us. We have performed it several times. We find new things in the piece as we re-play it. More and more, we get inside the quartet, as we do with all pieces that we play many times. We enjoy working with living composers, even if we don’t ask the composer to help.”
Daedalus played the quartet for Wernick several times before performing it. “We got advice about tempos,” Thompson says. Dick gives approximate tempo indications. His idea is that the perfect tempo is one that feels right to the players. He also listened to check that we got the kind of sounds that he wanted.
“Wernick gives specific directions,” Thompson continues. “His score is quite clear. Nothing that we played was drastically different from what he wanted.
“The piece is probably not hummable on first hearing. Knowing it quite well, I get various motifs stuck in my head. You have to hear it to understand it.”
The composition has four movements. The third movement, a minuet, has its roots in Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” for piano. Wernick was one of 25 Philadelphia composers invited to write piano pieces based on the theme Beethoven used for the monumental set of variations. Wernick recycled his piano composition for the Quartet No. 8.
The Daedalus Quartet was formed in 2000 and won the grand prize at the 2001 Banff International String Quartet Competition. “I joined in early 2002,” Thompson says. “After winning a competition my predecessor decided to take a job with the Philadelphia Orchestra. I always thank him for winning that competition.
“Integrating a new member into a quartet takes time,” Thompson says. “It’s a long process. Whenever there is a personnel change, it affects how everybody plays. We respond to each other.”
Choosing a replacement for a member of a quartet is also a long process. In spring, 2010, the ensemble chose Ara Gregorian to replace Kyu-Young Kim. “We read with quite a few people,” Thompson says. “Gregorian had a real intensity and passion. He was very communicative.”
The Daedalus holds residencies at Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. “They are both part time — visiting residencies,” Thompson says. “We give master classes and perform. There’s no important difference between the residencies. Music students are music students.”
Audiences differ from place to place, however, Thompson notes. The intensity of their reactions varies. “Anything that finishes with a big ‘hurrah’ [she is thinking of Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet and outsize piano quartets] evokes a standing ovation everywhere. If you don’t get one, you know you’ve done something terribly wrong.”
Bridge has released three Daedalus recordings and plans a fourth release. Thompson can be heard on all of them. The first, consisting of music by Ravel, Stravinsky, and Sibelius, was released in 2006. Haydn’s complete “Sun” Quartets, Op. 20, appeared on two CDs in 2010. An album of chamber music by Lawrence Dillon, of the North Carolina School of the Arts, is soon to be released. Dillon wrote his String Quartet No. 4 for Daedalus; it premiered about a year ago. The complete string quartets of Fred Lerdahl, professor of composition at Columbia University, are scheduled for release in the near future.
Born in 1977, Thompson, an only child, grew up in the Twin City suburbs in Minnesota. Her mother and grandmother played violin, but were not professionals. Her mother is a retired physical therapist. Her father designs roads and bridges.
Thompson is married to Evan Bialostozky, who plans routes and bus stops for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. The couple lives in New York City with their 22-month-old son, Sammy, who enjoys playing the drums. “I’m pretty impressed,” she says. “He uses drumsticks and also his hands on the instrument.” Sammy can be comforted by singing. One of his favorites is “Row, row, row your boat.”
Thompson’s first instrument was the violin. “I was very lucky,” she says. “The school district had a Suzuki program beginning in kindergarten. My best friend wanted to take violin lessons, and I followed her. She quit, but I continued. I switched to viola when I was eight or nine, and played both instruments for a while. I was immediately hooked by the sound of the viola.”
Thompson is likely to stay hooked on the viola. “The viola is in the middle of everything.” She says. “That’s why so many composers like to play the instrument.” Thompson’s fellow-violists among well-known composers include Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Antonin Dvorak.
Tempesta Di Mare, Raritan River Music Festival, Prallsville Mills, Stockton. Saturday, May 7, 7:30 p.m. “The Grand Tour” features trios, duos, sonatas, and suites by Bach, Handel, Couperin, Veracini, and Weiss. $25. 908-213-1100. www.RaritanRiverMusic.org.
Borealis Wind Quintet, Old Greenwich Presbyterian Church, Bloomsbury. Saturday, May 14, 7:30 p.m. Chamber ensemble features the New Jersey premiere of “Dance Episodes for Wind Quintet” by Brian DuFord. $25.
Daedalus Quartet, Stanton Reformed Church, Stanton. Saturday, May 21, 7:30 p.m. $25.
Piano and Guitar Program, Clinton Presbyterian Church, Clinton. Saturday, May 28, 7:30 p.m. Clarice Assad, piano and vocals; Newman and Oltman, guitar duo; and Arthur Kampela, composer. $25. 908-213-1100.