Classical string quartet swings to the rhythm of jazz

By Roger Levesque, Freelance The Edmonton Journal January 23, 2009

BLUE BY FOUR STRATHCONA STRING QUARTET CD Release Party Where: Yardbird Suite, 10203 86th Ave. When: 2 p.m. Sunday Tickets: $10 at the door

There’s no law that says classical players can’t play jazz, but it certainly packs a special challenge. Violinist Jennifer Bustin, founder of the Strathcona String Quartet, knows all about that. As the group prepares to release its jazzy second recording Blue By Four, she will tell you that “it’s all in the rhythm.”

“Other music — Bartok or whatever — has its own challenges but with jazz, rhythm is the whole issue.”

Over 15 varied tracks, the hour-plus disc offers a mix of standards from ‘Round Midnight and In the Mood to original tunes, all arranged and/or composed by the group’s senior violinist, George Andrix.

While viola player Moni Mathew and cellist Josephine van Lier complete the quartet, two guest jazz players, trumpeter Joel Grey and bassist John Taylor, who plays in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, join as soloists and add to the sense of swing. Quartet members play a few solo features too.

For his role, Andrix agrees that rhythm and arranging are crucial in translating a jazz feeling to string quartet music.

Like many classical players, he was initially wary of trying to improvise.

“Most of us spend so much time trying to duplicate as precisely as possible what’s on that piece of paper,” he says.

“It wasn’t until the last 10 or 15 years that I got the courage to stand up and try and take a solo. But I’ve always been interested in jazz and often drew on jazz influences for my regular classical compositions.”

Maybe it’s not so unusual that the quartet is taking this little adventure. They enjoy a wide range of influences, experiences and side interests. The group’s past repertoire has mixed up the classics and contemporary composers, and included a collaboration with Mile Zero Dance Company. Andrix also explored jazz-oriented works on the group’s debut disc (2004, Arktos).

Edmonton native Bustin founded the quartet in 1987 when she was a music undergrad at the University of Alberta. She wanted to satisfy the needs of student composers and take advantage of performance opportunities. Along the way, she fell in love with making chamber music.

Chicago-born Andrix joined the quartet in 1995 following a position in the ESO and even a hiatus from music that saw him become a sheep farmer. He became an avid jazz fan in college, when he also played saxophone.

Dutch-born cellist Josephine van Lier joined the quartet shortly after her move here in 1995. One of the busiest musicians in Edmonton, she can be seen playing in the ESO or many other chamber settings.

Edmonton’s Moni Mathew, the only member with jazz training from Grant MacEwan College, joined in 2004, taking over the viola.

Over the years they’ve done their share of busking, especially at the Old Strathcona Farmers Market.

Recital series opens with eccentrics and innovators

By Anna Borowieck, St. ALbert Gazette
September 26, 2015

Now in its 28th season, the Strathcona String Quartet is debuting the St. Albert Chamber Music Series with a mixed batch of compositions.

The ensemble, composed of Josephine van Lier (cello), Sarah Woodman (viola) as well as Jennifer Bustin and Shannon Johnson (violins), bring attention to the Great Eccentrics: String Quartet Works by Avison, Beethoven and Brahms.

In addition to traditional repertoire, these four connoisseurs of music take a fresh approach, often performing contemporary works from local composers and commissioned pieces.

For these fine players, reinvigorating the classics is an adventure. The quartet launches the music series on Oct. 3 at Don’s Piano Place paying homage to some of music’s most unconventional composers.

“It is fun for us that they are so different. We approach their music differently from Beethoven to Brahms to Avison and as a string quartet we make it work in its historic context,” van Lier said.

Charles Avison, the least known, is an early music composer from the 18th century. He was an organist, music teacher and composer in Newcastle England. Much like today’s modern freelance musicians, he was a jack-of-all-trades.

“He was a first in a lot of ways. He was the first to start a subscription concert. He was incredibly opinionated and didn’t make a lot of friends. He wasn’t afraid of insulting people,” said van Lier.

She added that the controversial composer even wrote an essay on how Handel was overrated. Unfortunately for the baroque composer, Handel’s compositions survived and gained popularity across the centuries. Avison’s did not.

The quartet performs Avison’s Concerto V in D minor, a lesser work that today would be considered a straight copy of Domenico Scarlatti’s keyboard sonatas.

Each of the four movements references a different Scarlatti sonata. It is rewritten and re-scored for string quartet. Avison often reset themes in different tempos and character than the original.

“Today it is considered plagiarizing. At that time, it was considered a compliment. They would steal from each other all the time. Avison’s concerto is basically a transcription from Scarlatti.”

For the Beethoven portion, the quartet selected Opus 18, No. 4, one of the classic composer’s earlier quartets. They chose it because it demonstrates his precocious mastery of the form and the beginnings of his rebellious nature.

“He was starting to go deaf and it was very upsetting. But he could still hear and his orchestrations were spectacular. He was a brilliant musician.”

In Vienna, he was considered a virtuosic performer and improviser in a world controlled by old masters such as Haydn and Mozart. Beethoven had little patience for social niceties and hated to play a subservient role to aristocratic patrons as many musicians of the times did. Instead, all his fury flowed into compositions.

Johannes Brahms was a humbler sort, a man who was careless with his appearance yet very precise with his work.

“He was incredibly critical of his work. He wrote 20 string quartet works, most of which he destroyed. He didn’t think they were good enough.”

The quartet favours String Quartet Opus 51, in A Minor, one of a handful of surviving quartets.

Modern reviewers speculate that the romantic composer may have suffered from a mood disorder such as bipolar, said van Lier.

“He self-medicated with nicotine and caffeine. He was a dark person, but he produced some of the world’s most spectacular music.”

Opening the recital is a performance by 10-year-old violinist Aidan Lai accompanied by his sister Justine Lai.


Strathcona String Quartet Sets Place At The Table for Blues Alongside Classical

An Arts Jasper November 23, 2005 Concert Review
by Gregory Deagle
Jasper Booster

The recital began with Beethoven’s String Quartet in B Flat Major, Opus 130.  At a playing time of approximately forty five minutes, this mature work written when the great composer had succumbed to nearly total deafness, ranks among one of the longest compositions for string quartet in music history.

It’s six ambitious movements chart a difficult course through bizarre syncopations and challenging entrances punctuated now and then by abrupt changes in tempo, so abrupt in fact that the piece  seemed to occasionally morph into an altogether different piece resulting in a provocative psychological tension.  One listener even suggested with this composition Beethoven breached the limits of traditionalism by venturing  perilously close to the avant garde. As eccentric a work as it is, the Strathcona String Quartet met with every one of it’s demands with due competence and elegance particularly in the Finale where an industrious basso line kept violist Moni Mathew well occupied.

With bio-notes that read like an eventful Jack London novel, an unassuming violinist, composer and conductor named George Andrix complements the Edmonton-based Quartet’s line-up.  Andrix introduced the Shostakovich  String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Opus 110, starkly known as “In Memory Of The Victims Of Fascism And War,” with a sobering preamble.

Dmitri Shostakovich was an embittered Russian composer, he explained, whose genius and personality were more than out of place in the Stalinist Russia of the thirties and forties.  As a convinced believer in Russian Socialism, Shostakovich  was brutally attacked in the official Soviet newspaper ‘Pravda’ for leftist distortion in 1936.  Realizing it was a fight to the death for his conscience as an artist and creator, he shunned society for fifteen years. During this time he wrote five symphonies and several string quartets including the 8th Quartet, an opus which he firmly insisted would be his last.  Luckily, for Western music it wasn’t.

Typical of all of Shostakovich’s works, the 8th Quartet is marked by emotional extremes, tragic intensity, grotesque and bizarre wit, humour, parody and savage sarcasm.  He even “signed” the indictment with the melody of his musical monogram, DSCH (D, E-flat, C, B).  This somewhat eerie grouping of notes forms a sort of tonal motif that recurs throughout the piece as it moves from one tragic movement to the next, the third being the Allegretto or “Dance Of Death” as it is commonly known.  This grim passage is adorned with a sardonic trill that quivers vulnerably like a pale leaf in a shrill wind.

In the atmosphere of the Great Terror that gripped Russia, Stalin’s KGB officers would comb the streets  ruthlessly apprehending innocent civilians and intelligentsia. The Largo movement featured a sinister build-up of minor chords culminating in three aggressively executed down bows. Convincingly played, this clever piece of musical drama evoked the KGB’s dreaded knocks on doors behind which entire families feared for their lives.For a program so entrenched in deliciously morose works of tortured genius, the Aaron Copland-like “Bashaw Boogie” written by Alberta composer, Roger Deegan and George Andrix’s “Shades Of Blue” were informal and delightful.  Andrix comes by his proficiency with blues honestly having composed, produced,  played all the parts and even sang on his own CD, The Complete Blues Viola.  “Shades Of Blue” took the audience on a sort of musical tour through blues inventions and studies.  From deconstructing then reconstructing blues chords (“Reconstruction”) to a loose, improvisational jam (“Wandering Boogie”), these five short pieces displayed the lighter side of string music while setting a congenial place at the table for blues alongside classical.

Jasper was left in awe of the Strathcona String Quartet’s outstanding
degree of musical understanding and professionalism, and their apparent
comfort level in undertaking and performing works that run the gamut of
human experience.