Spring Awakenings: Celebrated Verona Quartet opens Chamber Music Series

It’s certainly no secret that since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended life for pretty much the entire world. Yet despite the difficulties, people in nearly every field adapted quickly — figuring out a strategy to shift their working lives to a remote online model. Many have stayed there.

But there are a few industries where that kind of professional maneuvering is virtually impossible to craft, and Zoom meet-ups simply won’t cut it. Among them are the chamber music makers and the centuries-old tradition of the string quartet — a grouping of four musicians who, by historic intention and design, truly need to be in the same room communicating with one another in order work as one.

Jonathan Dormand is well-acquainted with the challenges. As a cellist, he is one quarter of the Verona Quartet, a much lauded musical group that serves on the faculty of Oberlin College and Conservatory in Ohio as its Quartet-in-Residence. And as a Brit, during lockdown he faced the added pandemic-induced stress of being part of a U.S.-based quartet while stuck on the U.K.-side of the pond.

“When the pandemic hit, we were in North Carolina because we have another residency here six times a year,” Dormand explained by phone recently as he checked out a North Carolina violin shop during a return trip to the state, almost two years to the day after it all began. “In the space of days, we saw everything collapse. It seemed it was not wise to play the concert and all our future plans disintegrated before our eyes.

“We felt the wise thing to do was go our separate ways or to our families.”

Verona Quartet. Kaupo Kikkas photo.

So the musicians went their separate ways and for the next six months, the Verona Quartet didn’t play together. Because the group had secured the teaching residency at Oberlin shortly before the pandemic, they decided that once it was deemed safe, that’s where they would reconvene.

“I’m a Brit, and although my visa was approved through the embassies, it took another three months before I got back. I haven’t spent nine months with my family since I was 16,” laughed Dormand, 34, who joined the Verona Quartet in 2017. “In many ways, it’s time I am very grateful for, and I’m also grateful to be back with colleagues.”

In terms of his musical career, Dormand is one of the lucky ones. He was able to return to the U.S. in December 2020. In January 2021, the quartet held its first rehearsal in nearly a year and by March, just as vaccines were becoming readily available, the Verona Quartet performed its first in-person concert since the pandemic’s start.

“That felt just like the most amazing experience — to be able to play music for the first time with other people in all those months,” said Dormand. “To get back imagining what the other parts sound like, suddenly everything came together, kind of like a religious experience.”

Now, things are looking up for the Verona Quartet, which has a full schedule ahead of it this spring. Among the many venues the group will be playing is the Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church where, on Saturday, March 26, at 5 p.m., the Verona Quartet will kick off Bridgehampton Chamber Music’s (BCM) spring series. Two more programs created by flutist and BCM Artistic Director Marya Martin featuring a different lineup of musicians will follow on April 23 and May 14.

“The beauty of playing in a string quartet full-time is you’re working in this finite way,” said Dormand, who explained that while he did what he could during the lockdown to stay connected to music through technology, given the way in which members of the quartet communicate, there’s nothing like being together in the room with his fellow musicians. “There’s this flexibility in interpretations and how the group breathes together as one. When you’re online or playing to a prerecorded track, you’re constricted by the person who lays down the first track. It’s changing the nature of the music, and while technology is an amazing thing, and you can have easy contact with someone from the U.S. and Asia, it minimizes the human aspect of music making.

“The experience of living and breathing is what we have to offer in the moment,” he added. “Having the pandemic has enlivened our process and reverence for what we all have to say.”

Jonathan Dormand, cellist with Verona Quartet. Kaupo Kikkas photo.

This will be the Verona Quartet’s debut performance with BCM. The quartet was initially scheduled to appear at BCM Spring two years ago, but those plans were derailed when the pandemic struck and the series canceled. For its March 26 performance, the quartet, which also includes Jonathan One and Dorothy Ro on violin and Abigail Rojansky on viola, has assembled a program of beloved favorites by Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, along with an evocative quartet by contemporary composer Gabriela Lena Frank.

The program highlights the work of three composers through a theme that references the overcoming of difficulties. In Beethoven’s case, it was hearing loss and the piece the quartet will perform — String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131 — was composed in 1826 after he had become totally deaf. The last of a trio of string quartets composed late in life, it was Beethoven’s favorite. He died six months later, and the piece was only published after his death.

“Any kind of hearing loss as a musician is an ultimate blow of fate, but in Beethoven’s instance, it expanded the possibility of what the string quartet was able to do,” Dormand explained. “In seven movements with no stops for 40 minutes, it covers the range of human emotions and you experience them all, including grief, on a journey to what I think is a triumphant ending.”

Like Beethoven, Peruvian-native Gabriela Lena Frank is a composer who suffered a hearing loss. But in her case, she was born deaf and spent her early years in silence before receiving hearing aids. Her composition — “Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout” — is a reflection of the secret world that defined her early years.

“The Gabriela Lena Frank piece is a different kind of expression and it comes from the inner workings of someone’s mind,” he said. “The color and scope of sound are so imaginative. It’s an homage to her Peruvian roots and they are explored in six different movements, including different aspects of ancient Peruvian civilization and modern influences.”

For Franz Schubert, it was the sheer beauty of Beethoven’s opus 131 that he had to overcome and upon hearing the piece, he purportedly commented, “After this, what is left for us to write?” The answer is his Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703, which will be the third selection in the Verona Quartet’s Bridgehampton program.

The perseverance of the three composers — particularly Beethoven — has been an inspiration for Dormand in the face of recent adversities the world has been experiencing.

“In spite of being given such a devastating blow, to come out always finding a positive answer that humanity is ultimately something good — it’s especially meaningful in times we’ve just gone through and are going through now,” he said. “The human spirit is one positive and frankly giving for the most part.”

And being back in the same room with his fellow musicians and an audience has proven to Dormand that the sharing of live music is not only important, it’s essential.

“One thing I say about classical music, it’s the best form of transport and time travel,” he said. “Given these current atrocities we’re seeing and living through the pandemic, if anything, it has strengthened my belief that music is vital for humanity and it’s something that connects us.

“Often, it’s better than we are, and to come together and perform it together is the most beautiful aspect of humanity,” he added. “I like to say, as an audience member, you’re experiencing something fleeting and ephemeral and living in that moment. No one else can experience that concert anywhere else. What an audience brings is magnificent. And we have a symbiotic relationship with the audience.”

Tickets for each BCM Spring performance are $65/$45 ($10 students), available at bcmf.org or 212-741-9403. All concerts take place at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, 2429 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton.

Bridgehampton Chamber Music – Spring 2022

Saturday, March 26, 5 p.m. – Verona Quartet

The Verona Quartet makes its BCM debut in a program of favorites by Schubert and Beethoven and an evocative quartet by Gabriela Lena Frank.

Franz Schubert: Quartettsatz in C minor, D. 703

Gabriela Lena Frank: Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout

L. v. Beethoven: String Quartet in C-sharp minor, Op. 131

Verona Quartet: Jonathan One, violin; Dorothy Ro, violin; Abigail Rojansky, viola; Jonathan Dormand, cello

Saturday, April 23, 5 p.m. – Baroque Spring

World-renowned artists perform Renaissance and Baroque works of wonder and imagination.

Alphonso X: Cantiga de Santa Maria for Flute, Oboe, Violin and Continuo

Diego Ortiz: Ricercada No. 5 for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Continuo

Jean-Marie Leclair: Tambourin for Flute, Violin, and Continuo

Antonio Vivaldi: Sonata in G minor for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Continuo, RV 103

Joan Ambrosio Dalza: Saltarello Alla Veneziana for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Continuo

Heinrich Biber: Sonata Representiva for Violin and Continuo

Johann Friedrich Fasch: Sonata for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Continuo

Andrea Falconieri: Chaconne for Flute, Oboe, Violin, and Continuo

Marya Martin, flute; James Austin Smith, oboe; Tien-Hsin Cindy Wu, violin; Inbal Segev, cello; Kenneth Weiss, harpsichord; Shane Shanahan, percussion

Saturday, May 14, 5 p.m. French Flourishes

French works by Ravel, Gaubert, and Fauré bring the spring season to a colorful close.

Philippe Gaubert: Mèdailles antiques for Flute, Violin and Piano

Maurice Ravel: Duo for Violin and Cello

Gabriel Fauré: Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 120

Marya Martin, flute; Paul Huang, violin; Brook Speltz, cello; Gloria Chien, piano

Anita Shire

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