My first concert with them was right before I officially joined (May 2000), in March of 2000. I remember playing the Mozart “Dissonance” Quartet (K. 465) and Schumann A Minor (Op. 41 No. 1) in a small concert at the Music Institute of Chicago. I was teaching at Oberlin and would commute to come and play. I remember more the preparation than the concert—traveling to rehearse with them. I remember being very excited, and I remember those two pieces, but not so much how the concert went.
What is your secret for long-term success in a quartet?
The first thing is finding the right people to play with! That is the most obvious—having musical chemistry and a basic liking and respect for the others as human beings. Those are absolute underlying conditions; if you don’t have those, it’s not going to work. Just as important is the level of commitment to the quartet—everyone needs to be on the same page. After that, and tied into that, is to portray the music in its best possible way. It’s to the quartet’s advantage that everyone play their best—so every comment has to be constructive and to the point. Everyone has to be on board that it’s all about the music. If that’s the common goal, then everything else can be ironed out.
How do you balance family life with frequent travel?
It takes a LOT of scheduling! I am in a group with two members married to each other. My wife is not in the quartet, and we have two little kids…she knew what she was getting into, but it takes an incredible spouse. It takes scheduling, planning, and willingness on the part of all parties. You schedule way in advance and construct your travel in a way that you can be away from home as little as possible—doing crazy things like driving for hours after a concert late at night. This month, I’m traveling with my family and we’re making the best of our time on the road. As a quartet, we schedule time off and respect each other’s family needs—it is essential to avoid compromising our quality and level of preparation. It is to our advantage that everyone is happy and that everyone’s family lives can coexist: adjusting rehearsal schedules accordingly, being understanding with each other.
How do you divide quartet-related responsibilities among your colleagues?
The main part is musical; but we’re also running a small business, in equal partnership. At first, we would try to divide it equally; but people’s skills and talents are varied. Over time, we’ve found areas that people are better at or enjoy a bit more. Everything is discussed among the four of us, but there are certain areas where certain people have more responsibilities. We have four management offices worldwide—there’s a main point person for them (me). Also one for our publicist (Masumi). Also our duties with students and administration at IU—there is someone who deals with them (Simin). Also presenters, composers, things like that (Brandon). And special projects. We are a unit, but also four individuals. It can be hard to come to a consensus on business decisions just like musical ones! We still divide things evenly, and make decisions and communicate as a group, but are aware of certain people’s strengths. Every decision has to be made relative to other people—whether it’s taking time at the end of a phrase or spending time with my family on a Tuesday afternoon.
This relates to balancing family and quartet life—one thing we learned is that the more organized and scheduled we are WAY in advance, the more flexible we can be. We will make a rehearsal schedule 6-8 months in advance and decide when we’re meeting before each concert—then it’s in there, and 98% of the time that doesn’t change. Then, we can schedule teaching and family time. I can decide to have a longer teaching day one day in order to spend time with my family the next. I advise other groups to try to schedule every aspect of your professional life way in advance—it sounds incredibly rigid, but it actually ends up being incredibly liberating.
What is currently on your iPod’s most-played list?
Five years ago, my iPod was much more varied! Different genres, music for enjoyment, curiosity—I have friends from Iceland who are indie musicians and listened to their stuff. But more recently, I have listened more to music and composers that I am researching, and with kids, there is more children’s music.
Right now, Schubert piano sonatas are at the top of my playlist. But that’s just this week—that will change.
Do you have any pre-concert good luck rituals?
To practice as much as possible!
What is the most memorable experience you have had onstage with the Pacifica Quartet?
There are many! Wonderful musical experiences—like the first time we played with great artists like Menahem Pressler, first time with the Elliott Carter quartet cycle, etc. The one foremost in my mind is yesterday’s performance!
The things you remember the most sometimes have nothing to do with music. At the Music@Menlo festival in California, during a Mendelssohn cycle, we got to the slow movement of op. 44 no. 3—a gorgeous slow movement—and suddenly a car alarm went off, with all the bells and whistles. It was actually Brandon’s car, and he had hit the button in his pocket with his bow! So that was a pretty memorable moment, one that we enjoy reflecting back on.
What is something your fans don’t know about you?
I am huge Chicago Bulls fan, and I try to follow the NBA as religiously as I can.
If you were not a musician, what else could you imagine yourself doing?
Sometimes when I’m traveling, I read the job ads just for fun to see what’s out there. Right at this moment, I’m qualified for nothing! But this life is the only life I can imagine. I have other interests—I like history, my brother is a professor of history, and I find it fascinating. Maybe I would have gone that direction—history, social sciences, current affairs—if I weren’t in music. Sports analyst sounds like a great job to me—following sports that I love, and making bold statements, and changing your mind the day after and no one cares. Maybe politics. Right now, though, I cannot imagine any work other than what I’m doing.
How do you stay sane while traveling?
Who said I’m sane?! Actually, I bring certain things from home—a picture of my family, for one. Once I started touring a lot, I’ve been forced to become more health-conscious: all of the early-morning flights, all the stress. Being more aware of your body, taking care of your body is necessary for survival. Also taking everything in stride: a travel mishap, being late… you just do your best, deal with things as they go, and avoid putting yourself in a position to be stressed. But bringing something from home, that is important. It is so easy to start focusing on the hardships of travel, but I try to focus on how exciting it can be, and the wonderful people you meet on the road, and the music, rather than how insane the travel is.
Any recommendations for finding good food on the road?
I keep a list of restaurants that I really like—started it two years ago.
Who do you most admire?
When it comes to music, I admire all my former teachers (Gudny Gudmundsdottir, Almita and Roland Vamos, Mathias Tacke and Shmuel Ashkenasi). I also admire Menahem Pressler—he has been such a mentor to the quartet. In terms of life, I admire my wife! In terms of historical figures, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mother Teresa. And entertainment, Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls.
What is the best advice you have ever received?
“Nothing can be beautiful if it is out of tune!” – Shmuel Ashkenasi