Chamberfest: Ariel Quartet’s lifetime of musical learning

The Ariel Quartet: Alexandra (Sasha) Kazovsky (violin), Jan Grüning (viola), Amit Even-Tov (cello) and Gershon Gerchikov (violin). They make their Chamberfest debut Monday evening.

The middle school years aren’t known for producing string quartets, but that’s just when … and where … the award-winning Ariel Quartet got its start.

The quartet is Alexandra (Sasha) Kazovsky (violin), Gershon Gerchikov (violin), Jan Grüning (viola) and Amit Even-Tov (cello). They will make their Ottawa debut at Chamberfest on Monday evening.

In the concert, the members of Ariel will play Robert Schumann’s String Quartet in F major, Op.41, No.2 and Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major. And then a treat. They will join forces with the Rolston String Quartet to perform Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings in E flat major, Op. 20.

It’s not all that rare to combine the talents of two string quartets into an Octet, but what is interesting is that both ensembles have something in common … the Banff International String Quartet Competition.

Ariel won in 2007 and the Rolstons took home the top spot in 2016.

For Sasha Kazovsky, the time spent at Banff was memorable.

“It’s a very well known competition and very prestigious. That was the initial motivation to go but even before we went, people were saying ‘You will enjoy this’. Out of all the competitions that we have taken part in, Banff truly stands out. They take festival approach to it and they very much treat it as a performance opportunity and a big celebration rather than putting every group on the spot as most competitions do.

“The audience there is so enthusiastic and the people come there to listen to beautiful music. It takes place over several days and every quartet has an opportunity to play many times before anything is decided, I think that is critical. The feeling was that we were all there to make beautiful music and almost forget it’s a competition.

And, of course, she’s not forgetting how beautiful the place is located in the Rocky Mountains west of Calgary.

The Ariel Quartet has seen the world since they formed in middle school.

“I don’t know a lot of quartets that share that particular path,” said Gershon Gerchikov. “In our case it was a natural place place to form a group.”

The school they attended in Jerusalem was connected with the conservatory. It was similar to an arts school in North America with a focus on music and dance.

“Basically one of the classes we took was a chamber music class in which we were initially put together probably more by age than level of playing. It very quickly became more serious … something that we got involved in passionately. And here we are, 20 years later.”

That’s a lot longer than The Beatles.

So what’s the glue that keeps them together?

“First of all I think truly the glue is the music,” Sasha said. “It is so extraordinary. There is such richness in the repertoire. It is also very challenging.” But, she added, a quartet that works together for a long time develops a certain set of skills and bow strokes and intonation that is really very fundamental to the music.

“Aside from that, for us, the personal makeup of the quartet was also very important. We started basically as kids and we had a lot of fun rehearsing and exploring music together. Through different periods in our lives there always was something that was interesting on a personal level as well as musically.

For Gershon, the string quartet is a perfect vehicle to deeply explore the repertoire.

“Ultimately if you look at the different possibilities for musicians in terms of career paths there are very few that allow you to go into such depth in such a serious way without somebody else being in charge. You are making the decisions; you are your own boss in a string quartet. It’s a rewarding,  challenging process, if you stick to it and the cards play well.

There is also an intense focus when playing in such an ensemble, Sasha says.

“I can say from my experience of playing in other formations, there is no one instrument that carries the others, that sometimes happens in groups led by piano. In a string quartet, tt also feels like we are making a jigsaw puzzle in the air. Every piece is vital for the whole construction.”

The pieces played in this first Ottawa concert fit into the evolution of Ariel as a group.

“Schumann has been an ongoing project for us in the past three years. It is remarkable how little his three quartets are played. In a way, it’s part of  his unique way of approaching the string quartet medium and the music has a set of challenges that are his own.

“All three are unbelievable like all Schumann’s music. We were very interested in looking forward to learning all these pieces and we have all three in our repertoire now.

“No. 2 is a wonderfully bright and celebratory piece.”

Ravel’s F major quartet is a piece that Ariel has played alost from the beginning.

“One of the biggest advantages for us being a quartet for a long time,” Gerchikov said, “is that you get a chance to learn a piece, put it aside for a few years and then come back to it and learn it anew and approach it from a new perspective. Ravel has been that kind of piece for us.

“We have played it in different periods in the past. Every time you pick up a masterpiece such as the Ravel it’s like returning to a favourite novel and re-reading it. You realize how much you’ve missed. As you grow up and develop as a musician these pieces kind of reveal themselves anew.”

The Mendelssohn Octet is a great piece for a summer program because it is positive and outgoing.

“I hope everyone in the audience will go home smiling because it is just type of music. Mendelssohn conceived it when he was 16. He revised it later, but you can definitely feel the youthful energy and his talent. This piece is never boring.”

She said you might think the Octet would be in two separate quartets alternating. But in Mendelssohn’s the cello parts are exchanged, she said.

“Cello No. 2 belongs to the first part and Cello No. 1 belongs to all the second parts. That allows for a wonderful cross-team collaboration.”

The members of Ariel left Israel to study at the New England Conservatory and have been based in the United States for many years.

An early job was in Cincinnati, Ohio where they were the quartet in residence at the College-Conservatory of Music.

“And here we are many years later. We still travel and perform in Europe and Israel and Canada of course. I don’t think the place determines who you are,” she said, experiences do.

Ariel Quartet with the Rolston String Quartet
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: July 30 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.