Speechless Storytelling to the Ear: The Jasper String Quartet

Photograph by Martha Holland

Warm sun fills my blood with a sense of calm, as the balance of chirps in the air and water flowing keeps my senses charged with anticipation. The morning rays promise heaven ahead, so why is the intensifying wind so cold? Trying to find reassurance, I see that the heavens above are rapidly infected with the unforgiving dark of a challenge, or a nightmare.  My heart beats furiously alone, as I fearfully whisper amongst the sudden hush, “something’s coming.” Uncertain, but certain at the sensation of doom echoed in every thunderclap, a figure stands alone against the tide of a journey, waves of black, billowing clouds forcing a grand fate that one never wanted.

This was a storyline I lived through during the Jasper String Quartet’s enchanting concert this past Friday. I felt like a hero ensnared by ancient prophecy, stubbornly resisting the fabled call to action with power similar to VR. The most surprising element of the concert was how the performed classical music, which my inner scribe had wrongly noted to lack emotion because of an absence of lyrics, made me feel like I was alive in a different world while simultaneously imbuing me with rich updrafts of sentiment. Being someone who doesn’t listen to classical music myself, I justly concluded that music’s, especially chamber music, cathartic relatability transcends genres. 

The current Jasper String Quartet includes J. Freivogel and Karen Kim on violin, Andrew Gonzalez on viola, and Rachel Henderson Freivogel on the cello. This group of musical wonders was formally established at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, named after the Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada, and had their first professional debut as Rice University’s Graduate Quartet in Residence. They are currently the Featured Artist in Residence for the 2021-2022 year at Swarthmore (also one of the first at Swarthmore). In addition to performances, the Jasper hosts masterclasses to teach and assist the student orchestra (string section), student chamber music group, and the student lab orchestra with developing the right sounds that best demonstrates their unique voices. In short, they’ve done a lot as both communicative performers and altruistic players in their communities.

Walking into the Lang Concert Hall on the night of the performance made me feel like I was returning home to Christmas, but a little more special. There were two paths of circular lights dotting the sides of the hall, one on each side, bright as I entered and warmly dim as the Jaspers entered the hall. A large red curtain hung from the almost starry roof on the right side, seemingly foreshadowing the hearts of the audience that will move as the lights dim. On the left, a small recording room is built into the wall to ensure that the entire audience will be able to hear the magic in the air. The dark seats on the lower and upper level of the hall are at a slight decline pointing towards the stage, a perfect place to relax in the echoing ambience of sound.

The music was ethereal in the sense that without words, the audience was stirred deep inside by the cathartic sentiments expressed by the sounds. Many were staring intensely and blinking frequently during the powerful “explosions” of ferocious up and downscale notes; with the serene atmosphere invoked by softer, slower notes, the audience was unconsciously shifting along to the music. Aggressive fluctuation in pitches put the audience on the defensive, but the methodically-played intervals of bliss invited the audience into the parts of their lives where they reflected upon life against the red-orange sunset.

In an email to The Phoenix, J. Freivogel and the Jaspers wrote, “Over all the many years we have played together, the one takeaway is that nothing replaces hard work. No matter how talented someone might be, making it in music requires an intense devotion, dedication, and work ethic.” 

This was one of my favorite responses; it goes to show that nothing replaces practice, practice, practice. In addition, J. mentioned that playing in a string quartet in particular was a “magical” experience. 

“Not only do you get to play both a solo part and a group and be part of an ensemble, but the hours and hours of work spent together with the same 4 people allows for an immense depth of music making,” he added. To make music is a delight; to collaborate with others to produce meaning is an enchanting delight.

Now to some members of the audience for their opinions on the performance. Audience member Bethany noted some interesting, but subtle observations of how the Jaspers played. She noted that Rachel, the cello player, produced the bass sounds for the majority of every piece in addition to simple beats and plucks. In essence, she kept the other players “grounded” into the mood and general pattern of the piece to ensure that everyone was on the same page. Audience member Shadae brought up an intriguing analogy: she likened the powerful “explosions” of the piece to mother nature awakening at an almost dangerous intensity, “Like a stampede of many herds together or a pack of wolves on the hunt at the full moon.” Conversely, an anonymous audience member described the more relaxed, tranquil parts of the musical pieces as nature in its purest form. They said, “Imagine a forest at the crack of dawn, with birds chirping and tons of movement as everything wakes up into a peaceful morning set against the blue skies.”

I’d like to end with another quote from the Jaspers, which I think beautifully encapsulates how though the audiences and society change with time, music’s ability to communicate ideas and voices evolve to reflect those changes with every budding artist. “Art is a wonderful reflection of and reaction to a society’s values. As artists, we must be citizens of today’s world. To me, composers are philosophers and, through thoughtful programming and presentation, we can connect the meaning of the music from across time with our audience of today.”

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