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It has been a privilege collaborating with the Excelsa String Quartet for Das Lied von der Erde this season. Take a moment to learn more about these amazing musicians!

What should I be listening for if I have never heard Das Lied?

Mahler is a unique composer. Specifically in this case, Das Lied demonstrates his extensive use of something called “word-painting”. Mahler would bring out the deepest meaning of a single lyric by using a certain tone color or harmony on that particular word. There are so many moments where he will transform the meaning of one word by using specific instruments to paint his desired color in that moment. A great example is near the end of the fourth lied Von der Schoenheit (Of Beauty) in which the vocalist is describing young beautiful women looking longingly at the strapping young men nearby. At the end of the line “Her proud pose is but a pretense” – on the word “pretense,” the chord changes the mood completely! This is just a tiny example of the astonishing level of detail in this complex and sinuous interplay between lyric and music.

Why should people come to this concert? Everyone should come to this concert! This is a combination of the greatest elements in music: the greatest orchestral music transforms into chamber music, vocal and instrumental music combined, and the result is transcendent. This is truly some of the most beautiful music that anyone has ever written. Benjamin Britten writes about this last movement Der Abschied: “I cannot understand it- it passes over me like a tidal wave – and that matters not a jot either because it goes on forever. Even if it is never performed again, that final chord is printed on the atmosphere.” Shostakovich describes the last movement as “the greatest thing of genius ever created in music. If I only had one hour left to live, and I were able to listen to one record only, then I should choose the final movement of Das Lied von der Erde.”

What drew the quartet to this Mahler project? We were excited to do a large-scale chamber project with District5. This is a very challenging and beautiful piece, and it’s a privilege to play it in all formations. But we are particularly fond of chamber orchestral versions, because it allows us to collaborate so much more closely and to transform the normally large-scale symphonic piece into a very personal experience.

Though Mahler is usually thought of for his huge symphonic repertoire, he writes very personal and intimate music that deserves to be seen and heard through a more intimate and microscopic lens. Also, as Excelsa Quartet and District5 are the graduate fellowship ensembles here at UMD, we work so closely with our own ensembles most of the time. We jumped at the opportunity to collaborate together with wind players, as they enrich our experience as string players so deeply. They remind us to breathe a lot more and we end up playing quite differently with the various timbres of wind instruments we’re not used to hearing so frequently. It expands our horizons in how we listen to one another as musicians.

What is next for Excelsa?

We are very happy to be traveling a little bit in June. We will be premiering a brand new string quartet written for us by John Heiss in Boston on June 12, 2015! This is a fantastic collection of 8 mini-pieces entitled “Microcosms”. And almost immediately after that, June 15-28 we are headed to the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival (aka Shouse Institute) in Detroit, MI where we will be working with and collaborating with the Emerson String Quartet.

A Little More About Excelsa Quartet:

First Prize winners of “The Provincie Limburg Prijs” along with the “EMCY Artprize” at the Charles Hennen 26th International Chamber Music Competition for Strings in The Netherlands, Excelsa Quartet is now the Graduate Fellowship String Quartet at the University of Maryland in College Park, MD.

Excelsa Quartet was formed in January of 2009 at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. They continued their studies at the Konservatorium Dreilinden in Luzern, Switzerland, and in the Professional Quartet Training Program under the tutelage of the Alban Berg Quartet at the Hochschule für Musik und Tanz Köln in Germany. In 2011, Excelsa Quartet won the ‘Prix du Jury “Jeunes Musiciens” et du Public’ at the Illzach 17th International Chamber Music Competition in France. As regular participants in the Britten-Pears Young Artists Programme (Aldeburgh, UK) since 2009, the Quartet has worked with Isabel Charisius (Alban Berg Quartet), Ilan Gronich (Israel Quartet), Sebastian Hamann, the Pavel Haas Quartet, and Quatuor Mosaiques. They have also attended the St. Lawrence String Quartet Seminar in Stanford, CA (2014) and the McGill International String Quartet Academy in Montreal, QC (2014).

For the 2014-15 Season, Excelsa Quartet was granted a Fall residency at the St. Lawrence String Quartet’s “Emerging String Quartet Program” at Stanford University, giving them a unique opportunity to perform in various concert and community settings in Stanford, CA. Other season highlights in the Washington DC metro area include performances at the Arts Club of Washington, Kent Chamber Music, and “Common Tone” series at Busboys and Poets.

The Quartet has had the honor of working with members of the Guarneri Quartet, Left Bank Quartet, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Cleveland Quartet, James Stern, André Roy, Roger Tapping (Juilliard Quartet), David Takeno, Lucy Chapman and world renowned conductor Benjamin Zander. They have also collaborated with the Miami String Quartet and with composers John Heiss and Wolfgang Rihm.

Excelsa Quartet takes its name from “Picea excelsa”, a distinct species of Northern European spruce trees used to make the top panel of fine string instruments.




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