A Conversation with Marc-André Hamelin

Over the past two years, we have had the great privilege of recording and touring Leo Ornstein’s Piano Quintet with Marc-André Hamelin. Last fall, we had a bit of downtime backstage before a performance of the Dvořák Piano Quintet in Chicago and decided to take the opportunity to ask Marc-André a few questions about his discovery of Ornstein for our blog readers.

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

Masumi: Can you talk a little bit about the Ornstein Piano Quintet and what possessed you to start playing Ornstein’s music; and talk also about your process of familiarizing yourself with his music and this quintet?

Marc-André: Well, I have to backtrack considerably here. If you have any interest in out of the way repertoire, as I do, you’ll come across the name of Leo Ornstein really almost inevitably. Especially since I have always had a penchant for the wonderful and strange and, let’s say it, weird! So I came across some of the piano music, and what was published at the time was really rather extreme in many ways. And I thought, “Oh my god, I’ve got to hear this music.” So I started to try to play it and try to get recordings, but at the time there was almost nothing.

Masumi: Where did you find his music originally?

Marc-André: I’m very thorough and somewhat aggressive in scouting out old stock in music stores and of course libraries.

Masumi: What’s a music store? They don’t exist any more!

Marc-André: Yes, but we’re talking about the early eighties when I got my first [Ornstein] score. Right when I moved to the States. There was a store that had some recently reprinted Ornstein and I started to look at that. But it wasn’t until the late eighties that I found what was I think the first recording ever of Ornstein’s music, and that was of the piano quintet. It was an old recording on the CRI label, (Composers’ Recordings), and it was really quite good. And it was certainly good enough for me to sit up and pay attention — I thought, “This is really extraordinary.” I had heard some unfamiliar piano quintets or pieces of chamber music of all periods of descriptions before, but this really stood out and cried out to be better known. For a while I didn’t know where to get the music until I met Leo Ornstein’s son Severo who, over the years, spent an incredible amount of effort putting most of his father’s music into computer notation—into print, and that’s what happened with the quintet and it was finally available online. And what’s remarkable is that Severo has made all of his father’s music available online for free. He never expected to make much money from it, so it can be consulted and downloaded at no cost. But since then, a critical edition of the quintet has become available and now one can benefit from a really reliable source when one wants to play the work. It’s a very dynamic work, and I think you will all agree, having played it, that it really speaks from the heart. It’s very genuine and it’s also very instinctive because one cannot really discern any compositional technique behind it. It has a very flowing type of inspiration, I think. One shouldn’t try to analyze it too much. It certainly has its critics; some of them deplore the lack of systematic thought in it, the fact that it’s too instinctive.

Simin and Marc-André with Severo Ornstein, son of Leo Ornstein, backstage in San Francisco.

Simin and Marc-André with Severo Ornstein, son of Leo Ornstein, backstage in San Francisco. This was the moment when we first laid eyes on the score for Ornstein’s Quartet No. 2!

Masumi: When you say systematic thought, do you mean structure?

Marc-André: The fact that there is little or no counterpoint in it, for example, whereas other composers would have just relished or invited the idea to just combine things together. It’s all sort of one block, basically. And the musicians always move as one. But there are enough people who have responded to performances we’ve done with really great enthusiasm. You’ll recall that the reaction at the end is always extremely positive and I think a little startled. So to my mind, this alone should ensure the quintet’s place in the repertoire at least occasionally!

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

From 2014 Ornstein recording session at Henry Wood Hall in London.

Masumi: So having discovered the piano quintet first on that recording on CRI and now having recorded it yourself, you’ve kind of come full circle. But in between, what were the works that you explored after you found that piano quintet originally?

Marc-André: Well I started to explore his piano music because there is so much of it. And the interesting thing about Ornstein is that he went through a variety of styles. Here he was in his youth, in his twenties, a very successful touring pianist, playing Chopin, Liszt, Schumann and even the then “ultra moderns” (we’re talking people like Debussy and Ravel!). But around 1912 or 1913, for no reason that he could possibly explain, he started writing these ultraviolent and dissonant piano pieces, completely atonal. It was an uncontrollable impulse on his part, so much so that he started doubting his own sanity and others doubted it did as well. But he stuck to his guns. He was even able to manage getting these pieces published back then. But he could also write very lyrical, wonderful, lush pieces and he also produced a lot of really good pedagogical material. As a matter of fact, he founded a school in Philadelphia in 1930 called the Ornstein School with his wife, and its most famous student is… John Coltrane!

Masumi: Oh weird!

Marc-André: Yes! But it was a very successful school and now the building itself is occupied by the Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts. I think it’s the same address.

Masumi: And this is sort of a traditional, classical training school? With John Coltrane?

Marc-André: Yes, I assume he received classical training.

Brandon: Well I thought it was interesting—this is not about Ornstein, but we were talking about Schnabel who was also a very interesting composer and wrote a lot of fine music—that you find time with your busy performing career to write. You do a lot of writing and we’ve had a chance to play your Passacaglia. So how do you find time and what drives you to be able to do that with your busy schedule? And what is your motivation?

Marc-André: It’s a little difficult to talk about because I haven’t actually put pen to paper in about a year and a half now. The last piece I wrote was a commission for the Munich ARD competition and that was finished March 2014. And it wasn’t performed until September 2014. I will have to put pen to paper again because I have two commissions for 2017.

Masumi: One of them being for us! A piano quintet, which is an expansion of your Passacaglia.

Brandon: Which is a beautiful, beautiful piece.

Sibbi: Which we played with you in Florence, Italy.

Marc-André: That’s right! Yes, I will go on writing — I can say that up to now, I have found it very fulfilling. I started writing simply out of a basic impulse. It was right from my very first lessons when I was five when I discovered musical notation. My dad was a very good amateur pianist and he had very impressive looking scores lying around—Liszt, Chopin, and also some music paper. I would try to fill the music paper because as a five year old I wanted to do the same thing. Of course nothing I scribbled made any sense then but the impulse was there and it has never left me. But it took me a long time before I could produce anything that was even showable or listenable to anyone. Just as you learn how to write by writing, you learn how to compose by composing.

Masumi: Yes. Well, as you were saying, I guess we have to get dressed now and make ourselves presentable for the stage and play a few notes before we walk out on stage! Thank you for talking with us.

Sibbi: And thank you for playing with us!

Marc-André: And thank you for playing with me!

Post-concert photo at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival in 2016.

Post-concert photo at the Tucson Winter Chamber Music Festival in 2016.

Listen to samples, purchase the recording, and learn more about our recording of the Ornstein Piano Quintet and String Quartet No. 2 on the Hyperion label here.

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Advice for Aspiring String Quartets: 10 Questions for the Pacifica Quartet

The Verona Quartet (formerly the Wasmuth Quartet), Indiana University Jacobs School of Music’s graduate string quartet, interviews us on what it takes to make it as a professional, touring string quartet.

The Verona Quartet is Jonathan Ong (violin), Dorothy Ro (violin), Abigail Rojansky (viola), and Warren Hagerty (cello). Within months of their formation, they won the Silver Medal in the senior division of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition and first prize at IU’s Kuttner String Quartet Competition. A few months later they were Grand Prize winners at the 2014 Coleman Chamber Music Competition and the First Place and Audience Choice Award winners at the 2014 Chesapeake International Chamber Music Competition. In May 2014, the Wasmuth Quartet won the Bronze Medal at the 8th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in Osaka, Japan and in March 2015 they won Second Prize at the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition. The Verona Quartet is currently the Graduate String Quartet-in-Residence at the IU Jacobs School of Music, where they are principally mentored by the Pacifica Quartet. 

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Here is their interview with us.

1) Warren: The four of you are stuck on an island and you can only have one kind of food to eat and one piece of music to listen to and you all have to agree on what it is.

Masumi: I know the piece of music. John Cage 4’33”.

Simin: It would be a Beethoven Quartet, probably.

Brandon: Let’s just pick four and vote on the best one. Schubert B-flat trio.

Sibbi: That’s your all time favorite in the entire world? I think it would have to be something like Goldberg variations.

Brandon: That’s your favorite?

[Laughter followed by long pause]

Simin: Wow….

Masumi: So four hours later…

Sibbi: Maybe we have to schedule another meeting…

Jonathan: You can all agree to disagree.

Sibbi: Maybe let’s go to the food and come back.

Simin: BBQ ribs.

Brandon: That sounds good.

[All agree]

Simin: Oh wait, would that all we could eat?

Sibbi: Every single day?

Masumi: It’s not really healthy.

Jonathan: It could just be BBQ. It doesn’t have to be BBQ ribs.

Masumi: Oh, ok. BBQ then.

Simin: I like BBQ. I’ll go with BBQ.

Sibbi: BBQ it is

Jonathan: Wow that was easy!

Brandon: I think the music one is a lot harder. I don’t think we could ever come to an agreement on that. Because we are a quartet I think we might want to hear something totally different like a Beatles album.

Sibbi: But not every single day….

Brandon: It could just be on Sundays when we have our family BBQ meal! Anyway, I think we are not going to come up with a consensus.

Masumi: Ok so we didn’t come up with any kind of an answer

Sibbi; Just the food!

Masumi: So that’s a failure!

2) Dorothy: Tell us a little about the beginnings of your quartet life—the greatest struggles and successes

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Simin: We started just as I was finishing undergrad and the during the first 6-8 months we traveled to rehearse so we would go to Oberlin or Los Angeles to rehearse. The first thing we did together was Aspen that summer and we decided that we all wanted to live in the same place for the next year so we moved to Chicago. I would say that our biggest struggle at that time was that we had no money for the first three years. We all had a pact that we wouldn’t take gigs unless we all four got them. So we did some teaching all at the same time so we could control the hours and we lived off of our credit cards.

Brandon: I think the biggest stress was with the unknown. We didn’t know if it was going to work out.  Are you going to have concerts? Are people going to want to hear you?  All that stuff that I think most people deal with in their twenties but as a quartet it’s kind of multiplied because the other thing is you’re watching other people taking auditions and getting jobs and it takes a while for a quartet to get on their feet. So that was a stress.

Simin: It was in our third year that we won Concert Artists Guild and that was kind of the turn around. From then we started getting concerts and could actually somewhat live as a string quartet. But I would say it was three complete years of all four of us just having faith that this was going to work and we were going to try it.

Brandon: Three plus.

Jonathan: We’re on year two…

Brandon: You have a whole year!

Simin: You have it better in that you’re in school and have some stability with that. We were living in Chicago and sharing a studio apartment…

Jonathan: And what about greatest successes?

Brandon: [Winning] Concert Artists Guild and Naumburg. Part of it is because when you’re starting out you do need some recognition just to keep the enthusiasm going and to feel like you’re headed in the right direction and both Concert Artists Guild and Naumburg gave us a lot of that. They gave us confidence and also made us more of a known entity and that made it a lot easier to get concerts.

3) Jonathan: It seems like the nature of string quartet life is that it can be very unpredictable, especially in the beginning. What was and what has been your approach?

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Sibbi: Trying to make it as much of a nine-to-five kind of existence as possible, so for instance we schedule very far in advance and pretty carefully and we stick with that. I think one of the hardest things for me when I first joined the quartet was not being able to just know when we were going to do anything because we were always changing or adding rehearsals. We didn’t have the stability because we had all committed to making quartet the number one thing no matter what. But suddenly you could never go and do anything outside of quartet. Actually getting our University of Illinois job [first full-time university-level residency] forced us to become very rigid in our scheduling because we all had the same teaching responsibilities and I feel it actually freed us up a little bit and made it more sort of a balanced existence.

Simin: That’s so true because quartet can easily become all consuming and that’s okay when you’re young and you don’t have families and you don’t have any other responsibilities but once you start having anything outside of quartet life then it doesn’t work as well if you don’t schedule.

Masumi: Scheduling affords you a delusion of regularity because at the end of the day there is no real regularity.

Sibbi: Which is why I say we are trying to create as much of a nine-to-five existence as possible.  But then I do think our rehearsals have gotten better because instead of adding rehearsals at the last minute, our rehearsals are scheduled months in advance and it has forced us to be better prepared.

Brandon: Because you know you can’t add more rehearsals.  We just won’t now. If we’ve scheduled a Saturday off months ago when we made our schedule then other people have already made plans like family stuff, teaching obligations… So you have to get it done. But I think the other element of surprise in a string quartet is that there are so many other things you have to deal with – people, organizations, residencies, teaching, etc.

Sibbi: Part of the unpredictability is actually the amount of people that you need to be in pretty close contact with. It’s not just ourselves but our management and our publicist. And then there are students, administrators, composers, people that record us, and all of this leads to unpredictability. We are often being pulled in many different directions and I find that to be something we really cannot plan for.

Brandon: I think what happens is when you first start out is that things seem kind of complicated. And then it kind of grows every year. You think, “Wow, this is kind of crazy how much is going on in our lives. This is the worst it can be!” And then the next year there is more stuff going on. Then you look back and you think, “Wow, early on it really wasn’t so bad.” But at the same time there are so many stresses that we don’t have now that we had in the early years. You guys are doing all these competitions and you’re trying to build repertoire and that’s stressful because every first performance is scary. And we’re in a position where we have tons of repertoire to draw from, so there are different kinds of stresses as you progress.

Masumi: It’s hard to decide if it was better before email and cell phone. Because you get more done now, maybe, in a way you get more done, you get more little things done, but somehow it’s a different level of focusing so it’s debatable.

Sibbi: I remember asking Paul Katz [of the Cleveland Quartet] how they did it before cell phones and email. So if somebody was late, everybody just waited! And if someone in Europe needed something they just waited two weeks for the mail to come. Or they sent a fax.

4) Abigail: You’re always surrounded by three other critics in a string quartet. Do you have any advice about giving and receiving criticism in a healthy and constructive way?

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Sibbi: We always talk about how the greater good of the quartet is the most important thing. I trust that they know my playing so well that I rely on them to help me sound the best that I can and then since it’s to the quartet’s advantage that we all sound our best, our comments are both to help each other out and to help us to be unified as a quartet.

Brandon: We were having this conversation a while ago about how if someone has a melodic line how much input the others should have as opposed to just letting people play. Because it is important to discuss a musical line so the whole quartet is thinking about it and it unifies things but at the same time sometimes you just have to let people play because if you are always kind of micromanaging their playing they can get a little bit tight.

Simin: It’s along the lines of what Sibbi was saying about the greater good of the quartet. So knowing their playing well enough that even if you don’t like the way someone is playing something, you can see them getting a little tight and you know that at the concert tomorrow night they’re going to be a little nervous about it so just let them play and give them what they need to sound good.

Sibbi: Because we also rehearse so much that we remember things so then in the concert once it comes to these two notes that someone discussed the articulation a lot in rehearsal, you get there and all you can thing about are those two notes.

Brandon: And of course to try the ideas discussed as well as you can and be committed to it.

Sibbi: And there’s a trust factor there and at this point we do trust each other. We trust that everyone likes each other’s playing, and so it’s trusting that when someone is suggesting an idea that is totally different from yours, that it has validity and you should try it.

Brandon: It’s one of the hardest things we deal with on a regular basis.

Sibbi: And it’s a combination of sometimes letting things go and sometimes actually really rehearsing something until you come to a consensus. And it depends on the day.

Simin: It depends on the day and the amount of rehearsal time you’re going have before a concert. Because of course the ideal is to always come to a consensus. But when you’re under the gun and you have to get up and play it the next day you sometimes have to just say, “Okay, we’re going to try it like this.”

Sibbi: Because the quartet will sound better even though you may not agree with it because it will be more together.

5) Warren: One of the struggles of being a young quartet is not having the repertoire built up yet. So when you have a lot of new repertoire to learn, how do you structure your rehearsals to make sure you get to everything?


Brandon: Yeah, we had a lot of problems with that.

Sibbi: We still have a lot of problems with that!

Simin: We try to plan it though. Even just yesterday we said, “We have this much music to learn. Let’s this week make sure we know these things, next week let’s make sure we know these things.” You know, we just really give ourselves time limits on stuff.

Brandon: We have a tour in two months and we know there are eight or nine pieces that we’re playing in a period of three days and a couple of those pieces we’re not playing at all this year so we know that’s going to be a crazy time. So we’re already talking now about trying to start rehearsing some of those pieces now so that when we’re in the heat of that period it will come together faster and we won’t overstress. So a lot of it has to do with thinking ahead in your schedule.

6) Dorothy: Let’s say you only have one day to prepare for a concert – like you just found out that day.  What is your go to program and why?

Masumi: The last program we played!

[All agree]

7) Jonathan: All young quartets have to take part in competitions and auditions. How do you deal with pre-competition stress, especially in the two weeks leading up to it when it gets really intense?

Masumi: Why would you ask that question? [Laughter. The Verona is preparing for a major competition in two weeks.]

Brandon: You’re not stressed are you? I feel like the most stressed I’ve ever been in a quartet was in that period with all those competitions.

Simin: Oh gosh, not me at all. No, I felt like that was much less stressful because you know, if you get it then great. But if you don’t, it’s like your life is just like it was the day before. You know what I mean? Because there’s no pressure really.

Sibbi: Michael Jordan once said he was never worried about his game-winning shot because you either make it or you don’t.

Simin: I always feel like that. You shouldn’t be that stressed because you can always do another competition. But I find it much more stressful later when there are expectations about the quartet.  Let’s say you win a competition, there’s a winner’s recital. Like our Naumburg debut concert. That was a stressful thing. There were people sitting there like, “Okay now let’s hear why they won.” Any situation where you feel like others are looking to see your value is stressful. And a competition is of course that but you don’t have anything to lose. You only have to gain.

Sibbi: That’s a great attitude.

Brandon: That is a great attitude. I didn’t apply that… Actually you know if you think about it, if you’re out there playing well, you can’t expect that competitions are going to make your career. You can’t look at it that way. They’re helpful. But if people have faith in you, and you hear from a lot of people that they really like the way that you play, you have to have confidence that that’s going to be the basis for having your career. It’s not based on the competitions and what those particular judges were listening for. That’s a healthier way of thinking about it.

Simin: Basically, winning a competition just gives you opportunities to prove yourself to presenters. That’s all it gives you.

Sibbi: That’s actually true because if an established quartet still highlights the competitions they won in the early days, maybe their career’s not that good…. But I think that one should go into a competition being as intense as possible but in the most positive way, if that make sense.

8) Abby:  Now that you’re performing a lot, do you still have anxiety before you perform?

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Simin: Of course.

Brandon: Yes.

Sibbi: Yes, and there is just a totally different level of expectation now.

Simin: For me it’s more intense now than before because of that. But we do play a lot so there’s something to knowing how to deal with it if you suddenly feel your heart beat when you walk on stage. You know this feeling and say, “Okay, well maybe the first half of the first movement of the Haydn is going to be kind of… and then it will go away.” You trust that it will go away because you’ve had that experience many times. Whereas before that would happen to me and I’d be like “Oh my gosh, I’m not going to be able to play!” because you don’t know that experience. So you just get better at trusting that it’s all going to be fine.

Brandon: One thing that I noticed about myself is that I feel now that I’m much better at, in a performance, if something happens that’s not good, I can kind of just put it in the past and move on whereas early on I remember if I didn’t play a solo well or if intonation wasn’t good in the quartet I would kind of be down and get progressively more nervous. Now its like, “Okay, it happened. Whatever. It’s just one concert and you’re going to play a million concerts and there are millions of people in Indiana who could care less about your concert.” You know what I mean? Put it into perspective. It’s one concert for these people here and they’re going to forget about it and you’re going to forget about it. Because we play so many concerts now that we can’t think of everything as the most major moment of our life.

9) Jonathan: Well, this final question sounds so stupid now!

Dorothy: This is Jon’s question…

Warren: Yeah, just to clarify, this is Jon’s question. If you had to assign a specific animal to each of the members of the quartet, what would that animal be?

Brandon: Well I think Sibbi would be a bear because of his name.

Sibbi: You find me that scary and imposing?

Brandon: Sigurbjorn means “bear conquerer,” right?

Sibbi: Well it’s Icelandic so it would be a polar bear.

Brandon: I think Brandon means protector of kitties.

Masumi: This is a very strange question…

Sibbi: It’s scary because when we’re next rehearsing we’ll be thinking about these animals. So what animal should we assign Masumi?

Brandon: He’s tall so…


Sibbi: Ok, so what animal should we assign Simin?

Simin: I’ll be fine with whatever.

Brandon: Really?

Sibbi: You will have to do that one [looking at Brandon].

Brandon: That’s dangerous. I’m gonna go home with her later… I don’t know, I had thought of an animal for her before….it was a smaller, petite animal, but a very cute one.

[“Aww’s” from everyone]

10) Abigail: As you see young quartets coming on to the scene now, is there one thing you really want to tell to all of them?

Simin: I feel that one of the reasons you guys are going to make it is because of the personalities in your group and that’s such a huge part of it.  The four of you are serious musicians but you’re pretty laid back people from what I can see. I think that it’s really hard for people who are really uptight about things to do well in a quartet and a lot of young quartets fall apart because of that. You guys seem like you’re very adaptable. You work well together, you compromise, you have that kind of rapport that not a lot of the young quartets have.

Brandon: I think relating to people is important too. You’re out there doing outreach, you’re teaching, it’s such a people job. You’re with so many people: administrators, presenters, and audience members after concerts so you have to develop relationships all the time.

Sibbi: If a presenter finds you to be impossible to work with, then they’re just going to hire another quartet. You have to be sort of an easy hire and be reasonable and of course it’s a given that the concert has to be great, and then everything around it just has to be simple because these presenters have so many things to worry about and the last thing they want to worry about is a certain person in the quartet having ridiculous demands.

Brandon: Or inflated ego. I mean, you’re just in a quartet. Nobody should have an inflated ego.

Simin: Right, and then usually the quartet will just explode if there are those kinds of personalities. You have to work with these four people everyday for a long time.

Sibbi: And related to that, you have to play well. That’s a given. Lately I do find that so many schools and so many people are talking about the “changing field in classical music” and being more entrepreneurial and marketing yourself and finding a niche and this is all true, but at the end of the day you still have to rehearse and play well and be committed to what you’re doing.

Simin: That’s a given.

Sibbi: Commitment. And being easy to work with.

Brandon: You just have to work hard.





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Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory

Premiering Shulamit Ran’s Newest String Quartet

We couldn’t be more excited to kick off our twentieth anniversary season by premiering a new quartet by our dear friend and colleague, Shulamit Ran. Shulamit is a longtime collaborator and colleague of ours from our residency at the University of Chicago. The new work is titled Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory. This piece and the inspiration behind it are so compelling and meaningful that we felt it was essential to dedicate our latest blog entry to serving as a resource for this piece and our performances of it. This commission is funded by Music Accord, a consortium of presenters from the US as well as Suntory Hall in Tokyo and Wigmore Hall in London.

Schedule of Performances of Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory

Pacifica Quartet with composer Shulamit Ran following world premiere of "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory" in Toronto.

Pacifica Quartet with composer Shulamit Ran following world premiere of “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” in Toronto.

In Shulamit Ran’s own words

Read Shulamit Ran’s compelling notes about Glitter, Shards, Doom, Memory – String Quartet No. 3 (2012-13)

Ran, Shulamit_2014(Credit_Laura Hamm)

Shulamit Ran
Photo credit: Laura Hamm

My third string quartet was composed at the invitation of the Pacifica Quartet, whose music-making I have come to know closely and admire hugely as resident artists at the University of Chicago. Already in our early conversations Pacifica proposed that this quartet might, in some manner, refer to the visual arts as a point of germination. Probing further, I found out that the quartet members had special interest in art created during the earlier part of the 20th century, perhaps between the two world wars.

It was my good fortune to have met, a short while later, while in residence at the American Academy in Rome in the fall of 2011, art conservationist Albert Albano who steered me to the work of Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944), a German-Jewish painter who, like so many others, perished in the Holocaust at a young age, and who left some powerful, deeply moving art that spoke to the life that was unraveling around him.

The title of my string quartet takes its inspiration from a major exhibit devoted to art by German artists of the period of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933) titled “Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920s”, first shown at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2006-07. Nussbaum would have been a bit too young to be included in this exhibit. His most noteworthy art was created in the last very few years of his short life. The exhibit’s evocative title, however, suggested to me the idea of “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” as a way of framing a possible musical composition that would be an homage to his life and art, and to that of so many others like him during that era. Knowing that their days were numbered, yet intent on leaving a mark, a legacy, a memory, their art is triumph of the human spirit over annihilation.

Parallel to my wish to compose a string quartet that, typically for this genre, would exist as “pure music”, independent of a narrative, was my desire to effect an awareness in my listener of matters which are, to me, of great human concern. To my mind there is no contradiction between the two goals. As in several other works composed since 1969, this is my way of saying ‘do not forget’, something that, I believe, can be done through music with special power and poignancy.

The individual titles of the quartet’s four movements give an indication of some of the emotional strands this work explores.

1) “That which happened” (das was geschah) – is how the poet Paul Celan referred to the Shoah – the Holocaust. These simple words served for me, in the first movement, as a metaphor for the way in which an “ordinary” life, with its daily flow and its sense of sweet normalcy, was shockingly, inhumanely, inexplicably shattered.

2) “Menace” is a shorter movement, mimicking a Scherzo. It is also machine-like, incessant, with an occasional, recurring, waltz-like little tune – perhaps the chilling grimace we recognize from the executioner’s guillotine mask. Like the death machine it alludes to, it gathers momentum as it goes, and is unstoppable.

3) “If I perish – do not let my paintings die”; these words are by Felix Nussbaum who, knowing what was ahead, nonetheless continued painting till his death in Auschwitz in 1944. If the heart of the first movement is the shuddering interruption of life as we know it, the third movement tries to capture something of what I can only imagine to be the conflicting states of mind that would have made it possible, and essential, to continue to live and practice one’s art – bearing witness to the events. Creating must have been, for Nussbaum and for so many others, a way of maintaining sanity, both a struggle and a catharsis – an act of defiance and salvation all at the same time.

4) “Shards, Memory” is a direct reference to my quartet’s title. Only shards are left. And memory. The memory is of things large and small, of unspeakable tragedy, but also of the song and the dance, the smile, the hopes. All things human. As we remember, in the face of death’s silence, we restore dignity to those who are gone.

Press about the piece

Colorado Public Radio, by Brad Turner, August 14, 2015

The New York Times, by Zachary Woolfe, November 10, 2014

Classical Voice North America, by Nancy Malitz, October 31, 2014

Oberon’s Grove, November 7, 2014

Press photos

Hi-res downloadable images are below:

Pacifica Quartet with Shulamit Ran

Pacifica Quartet with composer Shulamit Ran following the world premiere of "Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory" in Toronto, May 2014.

Pacifica Quartet with composer Shulamit Ran following the world premiere of “Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory” in Toronto, May 2014.

Shulamit Ran

Ran, Shulamit_2014(Credit_Laura Hamm)

Photo credit: Laura Hamm


About the Composer

Shulamit Ran, a native of Israel, began setting Hebrew poetry to music at the age of seven. By nine she was studying composition and piano with some of Israel’s most noted musicians, including composers Alexander Boskovich and Paul Ben-Haim, and within a few years she was having her works performed by professional musicians and orchestras. As the recipient of scholarships from both the Mannes College of Music in New York and the America Israel Cultural Foundation, Ran continued her composition studies in the United States with Norman Dello-Joio. In 1973 she joined the faculty of University of Chicago, where she is now the Andrew MacLeish Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music. She lists her late colleague and friend Ralph Shapey, with whom she also studied in 1977, as an important mentor.

In addition to receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1991, Ran has been awarded most major honors given to composers in the U.S., including two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, grants and commissions from the Koussevitzky Foundation at the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fromm Music Foundation, Chamber Music America, the American Academy and Institute for Arts and Letters, first prize in the Kennedy Center-Friedheim Awards competition for orchestral music, and many more.

Her music has been played by leading performing organizations including the Chicago Symphony under both Daniel Barenboim and Pierre Boulez, the Cleveland Orchestra under Christoph Von Dohnanyi in two U.S. tours, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Gary Bertini, the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta and Gustavo Dudamel, the New York Philharmonic, the American Composers Orchestra, The Orchestra of St. Luke’s under Yehudi Menuhin, the Baltimore Symphony, the National Symphony (in Washington D.C.), Contempo (the Contemporary Chamber Players) at the University of Chicago under both Ralph Shapey and Cliff Colnot, the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Jerusalem Orchestra, the vocal ensemble Chanticleer, and various others. Chamber and solo works are regularly performed by leading ensembles in the U.S. and elsewhere, and recent vocal and choral ensemble works have been receiving performances internationally.

Between 1990 and 1997 she was Composer-in-Residence with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, having been appointed for that position by Maestro Daniel Barenboim as part of the Meet-The-Composer Orchestra Residencies Program. Between 1994 and 1997 she was also the fifth Brena and Lee Freeman Sr. Composer-in-Residence with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where her residency culminated in the performance of her first opera, “Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk).” She was the Paul Fromm Composer in Residence at the American Academy in Rome, September-December 2011.

Ran served as Music Director of “Tempus Fugit,” the International Biennial for Contemporary Music in Israel in 1996, 1998 and 2000. Since 2002 she is Artistic Director of Contempo (Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago). In 2010 she was the Howard Hanson Visiting Professor of Composition at Eastman School of Music. Shulamit Ran is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where she was Vice President for Music for a 3-year term, and of the American Academy of Arts and Science. The recipient of five honorary doctorates, her works are published by Theodore Presser Company and by the Israeli Music Institute and recorded on more than a dozen different labels.

The recently completed Glitter, Doom, Shards, Memory, String Quartet No. 3, was commissioned by Music Accord, a consortium of concert presenters in the U.S. and abroad, for Pacifica Quartet.






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Thank you for joining us here! We’re titling our blog “Conversations with the Pacifica Quartet” and would like to use this platform to post compelling dialogues relevant to the work we do as a touring string quartet and teachers. We will invite guest interviewers to ask us their most burning questions and we will also interview people who are influential in our world…mentors, colleagues, collaborators, friends…you get the idea.

In our first series of entries, each member of the quartet answers FAQ’s — a collection of the most commonly asked questions of us.

We hope you will continue to follow our “conversations” and gain a little insight into string quartet life…or at least ours!

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FAQ: Simin Ganatra


What is your secret for long-term success in a quartet?

There are a lot of secrets. One of the main things is to make sure that as intense as the rehearsal process can get, our friendships aren’t affected, and those tensions don’t leave the rehearsal. We can have conflict during rehearsal but know that we still respect each other personally. A lot of young quartets may not know how to do that. One of the things we learned early on is that as long as everyone feels respected and valued in the quartet, you can be as critical as you want in rehearsal. It’s just a rehearsal. After the rehearsal, everything is the same as it was before.

How do you balance family life with frequent travel?

Well, it’s not easy, but we’re lucky that we have two girls who are good travelers. They happen to be just fine on the road and are used to it; they’ve been doing it since a very young age. We take our family with us. A lot of our really good family time is on the road, traveling in a plane or by car. It’s a lot of planning, and one has to be ready to make changes at the last minute if suddenly something comes up, being flexible to make a last-minute change. It works for us. There are pros and cons to it. A lot of people just see the cons, but there are a lot of pros. We probably spend more time together on the road than we do at home.

What is currently on your iPod’s most-played list?

I don’t have an iPod, but on my iPhone there is a lot of classical music—quartets, piano, solo violin. That’s the majority of stuff. There is a lot of kids’ music for when we are traveling with the kids. That’s basically what is on there right now.  I do enjoy listening to classical music when I have a chance.

Do you have any pre-concert good luck rituals?

Everyone has different things they do backstage. Masumi drinks tea. I like to be playing the violin before I go onstage because I like to feel warmed up. I go through the first page of what we’re playing at many tempos right before so I can feel warmed up when we first get onstage. By the time that’s done, hopefully my nerves are done too! I like to feel confident with the first page.

What is the most memorable experience you’ve had onstage with the Pacifica Quartet?

One time when we were in Europe, I had a situation where I flew on an all-night flight with my 6-month-old daughter, and I was meeting the quartet there. The concert was going fine, and then suddenly, one of my contacts came out!  I kept playing, and a page later, the other contact came out! And I REALLY need my contacts. So I was onstage, and basically blind. That was memorable!  There are others—one time Brandon’s cell phone rang during the slow movement of the Smetana quartet (a huge cello solo). That was also memorable. There have also been many musically memorable moments too.  Our first performance of Op. 131, our first Beethoven cycle, those sorts of big moments would be right up there.

I don’t know why I’m sharing all these embarrassing times… There was a time when we were trying to get into Canada…wait, Brandon’s going to get mad at me!

Another one: Early European tours when we had the kids, all the luggage and gear, and we were traveling in vans. We were driving in Europe with James Dunham in a tiny little car, that’s the whole quartet plus violist James Dunham and the cello in the backseat. Masumi decided it would be a great idea to tell dirty jokes—it was SO uncomfortable!

What is something your fans don’t know about you?

I like to make jewelry.  That’s my hobby. Wire wrapped stuff. I would really like to learn how to solder. I read a lot, and I like to cook.

If you were not a musician, what else could you imagine yourself doing?

I could imagine teaching. I love teaching. Doing something with writing—I was really into writing before I decided on music, so maybe being a journalist.

How do you stay sane while traveling?

We try to keep as many home rituals in place as possible. We bring food on the road with us so we’re not eating strange things. I keep the same routines like practicing early in the morning at home, which is what I do in hotels as well (with a practice mute). With the girls, we try to do the same things we do at home.

Any recommendations for finding good food on the road?

We like to read reviews online, and we get recommendations from each other and from friends. It’s an important thing. We like to go out to eat and eat well. Sibbi writes down all the different restaurants that he hears about and goes to, so we often consult with him.

Who do you most admire?

There are so many people. Musically, Menahem Pressler is definitely up there with his attitude toward music and his work ethic. It is always so inspiring to play with him. We are lucky that there are so many great American quartets and so many older-generation ensembles like The Juilliard, Guarneri and Cleveland Quartets. We have been influenced by playing for them and listening to their recordings. As a group, we aspire to play like the players we’ve had a chance to work with.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Be careful what you wish for because it just might come true! You really have to think about what you want. You can’t just wish for something you haven’t really thought through. It can be different when it happens. If you work hard enough, it will happen, and you have to make sure it is really what you want.

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FAQ: Sibbi Bernhardsson

pacifica_quartet_1505_sibbiWhat do you remember about your first performance with the Pacifica Quartet?

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

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FAQ: Masumi Per Rostad


What do you remember about your first performance with the Pacifica Quartet?

Ha! My terrible review! It was at the University of Chicago and we played Schumann’s Piano Quintet. The reviewer, a student, wrote that my open ‘C’ string in the second movement honked so loudly that you could probably hear it out on 57th Street! My colleagues tried to hide the review to spare my feelings!

What is your secret for long-term success in a quartet?

Staying in it! 99.9999% of string quartets just call it quits because it is easier to do that than to sort out your issues. We’re now among the very oldest of the regularly touring string quartets with almost all its founding members. That counts for something…

How do you divide quartet-related responsibilities among your colleagues?

We rotate a little bit, but basically everyone has an area of quartet business and can make basic decisions independently within that domain. It streamlines the operational conversations. Every year poses new challenges and we’ve had to adapt a lot over the years. It’s a constant learning process.

What is currently on your iPod’s most-played list?

Podcasts. I devour them.  This American Life, Radiolab, 99% Invisible, Wiretap, Love + Radio, The Moth, The New Yorker: Fiction, Fresh Air.  It’s hard to stay on top of current episodes but walking to school and long drives certainly help.

Do you have any pre-concert good luck rituals?

I don’t really believe in luck, but I do usually drink tea before I perform to sit down and try to forget the mundane aspects of the day and focus. Focus and presence of mind is probably one of the hardest aspects of performance, especially when coupled with a busy touring schedule.

What is the most memorable experience you have had onstage with the Pacifica Quartet?

Unfortunately the most memorable moments are usually the most embarrassing ones, like when you turn a page and the music is missing, or you start by playing the wrong piece. Silly mistakes are prone to happen. Happily, we are fortunate enough to have plenty of rich musical experiences to make up for the embarrassing ones

If you were not a musician, what else could you imagine yourself doing?

“What if’s” are hard. I can’t really separate myself from my identity as a musician anymore. In high school I was interested in theoretical physics, but my brain has since atrophied…

How do you stay sane while traveling?

I don’t.

Any recommendations for finding good food on the road?

Follow Brandon.  He often runs to every restaurant in sight and considers as many menu options as possible before making a choice. Besides that, I try to eat and drink local fare as much as possible.

Who do you most admire?

Karen Tuttle is my viola mother and role model. She was a pioneer in the 20th century viola revolution! She was deeply inspiring to me both musically and personally.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Have fun.

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FAQ: Brandon Vamos

pacifica_quartet1500_brandonWhat do you remember about your first performance with the Pacifica Quartet?

Wow. I think it was in a small church in Glendale, CA. We played Brahms’ A minor quartet (Op. 51 No. 2) and Haydn Op. 76 No. 1. I remember being very nervous but excited. I also remember loving the opportunity to play in a quartet—I had played in quartets before, but we had rehearsed quite a bit, and I had never played in a group that had reached that high of a level before. It was very enjoyable.

What is your secret for long-term success in a quartet?

Being committed to the task—you can’t ever really relax. The kind of rehearsing that goes into sounding good has to be intense: you have to do it with a great deal of thought and awareness. You can’t get lazy. You have to stay focused every day in rehearsal. Over time, you get better at it, but it is never an easy, relaxed thing—even if you play the repertoire many times, you have to come at it each and every time with a great deal of energy.

But it’s more enjoyable to approach a performance with that kind of commitment behind it. I always enjoy performances where the quartet is really prepared—especially performances on pieces that we’ve had time to live with. I’m much more a fan of that than first performances, although first performances can be exciting.

How do you balance family life with frequent travel?

It’s a challenge for sure. We often bring our kids with us; they’re with us now, and they’ve been traveling with us all summer. We try to make time for fun and interesting things on the road. The best times we’ve had as a family have been while traveling—having time on the morning before a concert and going to a children’s museum with my daughters, for instance. Now that my older daughter is 8, when we’re in France, she’s interested in some of the history. Especially when the kids are young, the traveling is extremely difficult—but as they get older, it gets easier. We’ve had some great experiences on the road with the kids.

How do you divide quartet-related responsibilities among your colleagues?

That’s something that’s evolved over time. And it’s a real challenge—something you don’t learn in school. A quartet is like a small business. People will ask questions of the quartet and expect an answer right away, but we have to consult as a group before we can answer. So we’ve developed responsibilities. I do repertoire, Sibbi mostly deals with the managers, Masumi does publicity, and Simin deals with the business side. We each have responsibilities, but we also have regular business meetings. Sometimes you can’t make decisions on your own—you need the input of the others. We have many representatives (American, Japanese, European, etc) and a publicist, and lots of others who we deal with. We’ve put a lot of our energy into that, it’s what any quartet has to do.

What is currently on your iPod’s most-played list?

Normally, I’m downloading stuff I’m about to play. Right now, the most played are things like Elmo—I spend a lot of time listening to that. [laughs] But I also recently played the Schumann piano quartet, so I’ve been listening to that as well. I use it as a tool to prepare to play new repertoire.

Do you have any pre-concert good luck rituals?

Not really. I don’t have any superstitions about performing. If I am too relaxed (lounging or laying down) I lose a little focus—so I try to be up and about, practicing or moving around. I try to keep my energy level high. Sometimes, if I’m really nervous, I’ll breathe—do slow breathing exercises to deal with the performance anxiety.

What is the most memorable experience you have had onstage with the Pacifica Quartet?

That’s a hard one to answer, I’ve had a lot of great experiences. Early on, when things were so new and incredibly exciting—playing at Alice Tully Hall after the Naumburg competition, with Bobby Mann [Robert Mann, longtime first violinist in the Juilliard Quartet] in the corner of your eye—that was so exciting, and so new at the time. That’s what I remember the most—the early experiences that were very intense and very nerve-racking. You don’t know how you’re going to handle it. We were very prepared, almost too prepared. And we learned something through that—what we needed to do to get ready for concerts.

What is something your fans don’t know about you?

I don’t have any big secrets, I’m pretty simple. In my spare time, I follow Minnesota Vikings, I like to watch football on Sundays. Also spending time with my kids, movies, good food –it can be fancy, or a roadside burger joint, it doesn’t matter.

If you were not a musician, what else could you imagine yourself doing?

I don’t know. I think about that a lot. It was always a scary thought. I never know if I ever had such a passion for anything else, or a proclivity or talent for anything else. I was always practicing, and never pushed myself in another direction, so I don’t really know. I like psychology a lot, and history, and so I like to read books on historical happenings and events. Certainly not math or science!

How do you stay sane while traveling?

I don’t know if I do! It can be frustrating! I’m getting better at it. When things happen, like a cancelled flight, it doesn’t bother me as much as it used to. It used to take a lot out of me if we missed a rehearsal or barely made the concert. Sometimes it’s just out of your control, and I’ve gotten better at just letting it go. The worst experience was travelling with our first child, and we brought too much stuff, and I remember going through the airport with a cello and 200 lbs of stuff—Masumi would take pictures of me. [laughs] We’ve gotten much better at determining what we need, and sometimes we’ll pay a bit more money for ease and comfort. We try to make traveling as easy and painless as possible.

Any recommendations for finding good food on the road?

It’s getting so much easier—all these web sites like Yelp, and the “Best of” lists. But you can’t always trust them. The best way is just asking the presenter and people who live in town. Sibbi is keeping a list—that’s the way to do it. We’ll find great barbeque in the South, great sushi places by the ocean…I wish I kept track. I think I’ll start doing that to remember the places we enjoyed. Other musicians blog about it—that’s another way to do it. Right now, we’re in Napa [August 2013]. Here, you really can’t go wrong. We’ve experienced unbelievable restaurants and great chefs, and there are always new places to find.

Who do you most admire?

A lot of musicians have been mentors—certainly my teachers. Paul Katz was a big influence, he played in the Cleveland Quartet. Menahem Pressler is amazing for his energy and dedication to music. I’m always impressed by great athletes, too. I’m impressed by a lot of people.

What is the best advice you have ever received?

Someone once told me, if you’re going to have a career in music, if you’re not having fun, why do it? Make the best of it, enjoy every moment. When things get hard, remember how lucky you are to do something like that—all the experiences you get with the traveling and the repertoire. That was really great advice.

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