CONSERVING CLASSICAL CULTURE: The Ariel String Quartet opens the Chamber Music Wilmington concert series
“People need to understand that you don’t need to be a nerd or belong to some form of an elite to be touched by this art,” explains Jan Grüning, a 31-year-old viola player for The Ariel String Quartet. Grüning’s love of classical music stems back to his childhood in Germany. He can remember J.S. Bach’s Christmas Oratory as an awakening moment—one that still brings up moods and feelings associated with being a kid during the holiday season.
“My parents were both amateur musicians in their youth (trumpet and violin),” Grüning says, “and that passion could be felt since music was always playing in the house, long before I picked up an instrument.”
At 5 Grüning’s mom asked which instrument he preferred to learn. “Violin, please,” he responded. He waited to take lessons with a specific teacher, patiently, for a full year. “It was that teacher who is the main reason I became a professional musician,” he says, a realization that hit him at age 8. His goal was to become as great as Wolfgang Schneiderhan.
“I didn’t know any chamber music at that age,” Grüning tells. “I could only imagine becoming a soloist—like probably any kid at that age seriously interested in playing an instrument.”
But Grüning did follow his dreams. He studied with Gerd Michael Herbig and at the Musikhochschule Lübeck in the class of Barbara Westphal from 2003 to 2008. Even though his parents had a love for popular music—Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison—his studies put emphasis on Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms.
“This installed a deep love and appreciation for those works in me, as well as an intuitive approach, which had me all-around satisfied,” Grüning tells. “I wasn’t looking for other ways to express myself; I felt no need. The music I worked on was complex and fulfilling.”
Grüning moved to the U.S. to study at the New England Conservatory of Music in 2010 after being awarded a scholarship of DAAD (German Academic Exchange Service). In 2011 he met members from the Ariel String Quartet, who also were studying at the New England Conservatory. Hailing from Jerusaleum, the founding members of the quartet—Alexandra “Sasha” Kazovsky (violin), Amit Even-Tov (cello) and Gershon Gerchikov (violin)—formed 16 years ago as mere teenagers.
“Amit, Sasha and Gershon went to the same middle and high school and were placed together in a string quartet with the founding violist back when they were age 13,” Grüning explains. “Initially, they didn’t take it all that serious, but pretty quickly, by being exposed to the amazing repertoire the string genre has to offer, they all fell in love with it and decided to continue and stay together.”
Chamber music coach Avi Abramovich mentored the young Israeli musicians. Since forming, they have won numerous awards, from 2003’s first prize in the Franz Schubert and Modern Music competition in Graz, Austria, to the grand prize and gold medal at the 2006 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition. They’ve served in a few quartet-in-residencies, including in Boston. After winning in Austria, they met Paul Katz, the former cellist of the Cleveland Quartet.
Grüning explains, “He became our new mentor. Together, with Itzhak Perlman and Vera Stern, he made it possible for us to come and study in the States.”
Grüning auditioned and joined the Ariel String Quartet when the original violist left. His first show as part of the group took place on August 5, 2011, in Lincoln Center. He played Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor.
“[I did] a few trial concerts to see how we worked together in the rehearsal room, as well as onstage under pressure,” Grüning remembers. “It’s equally important that the human component works well since we have to spend a lot of time together, whether or not we feel like it.”
Things took off swimmingly, as a matter of fact. Not only was the group gelling professionally, but on a personal level. Grüning and Even-Tov ended up married.
Today, between traveling far and wide to master their craft, the quartet is based in Ohio as part of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. Even though they’re barely in their 30s, they have impressed the classical world tenfold. They’ve worked with pianist Orion Weiss in a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of World War I. They’ve played with three generations of Israeli composers at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and they worked with Walter Levin from the Lasalle Quartet in Basel.
“He connected us with the College Conservatory of Music in Cincinnati, where the Lasalle Quartet had taught for many years,” Grüning says. “So, after our stay in Basel, we decided to make a home here in the States.”
Today, the Ariel String Quartet tours across North and South America, Europe and Israel. They play classical compositions, all from memory, but many audiences are impressed with their extensive Beethoven knowledge. Just last year, they performed a stellar Beethoven cycle at New York’s SubCulture that featured a midnight performance of the Grosse Fuge.
“We don’t have any [one composer or music] we love above all else, although late Beethoven could be argued for,” Grüning clarifies. “The repertoire is so vast and magnificent, and we are lucky enough to play a lot of very different pieces all the time, each of which is special and unique.”
Grüning finds the quartet’s appeal to young people constantly inspiring. “It’s only wrong prejudices, economic considerations and wrong/boring experiences that keep younger people away [from classical music,] and we would love to see this change in the future.”
As part of their conservatory, the musicians embolden students to better themselves, challenge themselves and enforce higher standards. “When you teach these skills, you set high standards naturally because you want your students to succeed,” Grüning says, “and if you are in the habit of setting high standards all the time, it’s much easier to apply them all the time.”
Continuously growing and expanding their repertoire remains of constant focus to the group. Performing at groundbreaking venues also tops the list. In May 2016, the Ariel String Quartet will make their debut at Carnegie Hall.
“This will be up there with our favorite experiences!” Grüning predicts. “I love expressing myself through the works of classical composers, specifically [of] the German school. I’m aware that a lot of artists are looking for new ways to cross over into the popular music genre, but for me, the music we play is absolutely relevant in today’s world; I don’t perceive it as outdated and better suited for a museum.”
The Ariel String Quartet will open the Chamber Music Wilmington concert series on September 27 at Beckwith Recital Hall on UNCW’s campus. “They are coming at the close of the High Holy Days in the Jewish Faith (Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana), and since they are Israeli this concert is generating a lot of excitement in the Jewish community,” says Barbara McKenzie, locally trained pianist and founder of Chamber Music Wilmington. “They will be performing a major work by an Israeli composer, in addition to Mozart and Beethoven quartets.”
CMW will dedicate the show to Seymour and Millie Alper, who have been cultural stalwarts and Jewish leaders in the Port City. Though Seymour has passed, his wife, now 94, is still alive and has helped with the expansion of the New Hanover Regional Hospital, as well as donated to local arts, including the now-defunct Wilmington Concert Association.