“The legendary Kolisch Quartet had the singular distinction of playing its entire repertoire from memory, including the impossibly complex modern works of Schoenberg, Webern, Bartok, and Berg. Eugene Lehner was the violist for the quartet in the 1930’s. Lehner’s stories about their remarkable performances often included a hair-raising moment when one player or another had a memory slip. Although he relished the rapport that developed between them without the encumbrance of a music stand, he admits there was hardly a concert in which some mistake did not mar the performance. The alertness, presence, and attention required of the players in every performance is hard to fathom, but in one concert an event occurred that surpassed their ordinary brinkmanship.
In the middle of the slow movement of Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 95, just before his big solo, Lehner suddenly had an inexplicable memory lapse, in a place where his memory had never failed him before. He literally blacked out. But the audience heard Opus 95 as it was meant to be played, the viola solo sounding in all its richness. Even the first violinist, Rudolph Kolisch, and cellist, Benar Heifetz, both with their eyes closed and deeply absorbed in the music, were unaware that Lehner had dropped out. The second violinist, Felix Khuner, was playing Lehner’s melody, coming in without missing a beat at the viola’s designated entrance, the notes perfectly in tune and voiced like a viola on a instrument tuned a fifth higher. Lehner was stunned, and offstage after the performance asked Khuner how he could have possibly known to play. Khuner answered with a shrug: ‘I could see that your third finger was poised over the wrong string, so I knew you must have forgotten what came next.'” [credit: Final Story of Eugene Lehner at newbestmotivator.blogspot.com]
Mr. Lehner was special to every student and musician he encountered and guided. I was fortunate to work with him in chamber music ensembles at Tanglewood and Boston University — I have never forgotten every minute I spent with him. He defined inspiration, and his energy never lagged. He was mentor to the Juilliard Quartet as they learned much of the standard repertory. Numerous other quartets in the USA and Europe — including the LaSalle Quartet, America’s first quartet-in-residence at any college or university — credited the Kolisch Quartet as its model.
I thought of Mr. Lehner and other teachers often as my husband and I founded Southwest Chamber Music in 1986. I also looked to my viola professor Walter Trampler for inspiration as a founding member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center in New York City. I increased my administrative skills in conferences and seminars at Chamber Music America and the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, and I was influenced by other ensembles, such as the Kronos Quartet, as models for our new organization.
Models are important. Without local and national models, founding our 32 year old ensemble would have been a series of experiments. Examples of successful marketing, grant writing, fundraising and concert production helped build our confidence for our own programming and educational programs. We met numerous colleagues at conferences and workshops, and developed a network of friends who we could call upon with questions or further discussions.
As one of the first American artistic advisors to the four-year old Hanoi New Music Ensemble (with my husband, conductor Jeff von der Schmidt), I am often reminded of the challenges of beginning a new endeavor without national models. It is difficult for any groundbreaking organization to know what questions to ask or what needs to be done. This is a challenging situation in any country, not just in Vietnam. It applies to business, education, the arts and innovative development in places without models around the globe. Another ensemble that is facing similar challenges to the Hanoi ensemble is the Ripieno Ensemble, official ensemble of the Modern Composers Lab based in Quezon City, Philippines. We met Ripieno Ensemble members Patricia Poblador (violin) and Joseph Hernandez (cello) at the first New Music Asia Gathering in October, 2017, sponsored by the Hong Kong New Music Ensemble.
The leaders of the ten-year old Hong Kong New Music Ensemble, William Lane (artistic director) and Sharon Chan (managing director), have embraced their role as a model organization for new music as the oldest contemporary music group in southeast Asia. Their Modern Academy has brought musicians to Hong Kong for training in contemporary music. William hails from Australia and has a wonderful career as a violist on international stages. We have had long discussions about the challenges and differences facing new music ensembles in Asia. Each country has their own characteristics, styles of composition, fundraising environment, and musical background. There is no singular path or model to follow. Each enterprising ensemble reflects its country and training. In this case in southeast Asia, one must acknowledge the colonialism of France (Vietnam), Great Britain (Hong Kong), and Spain (Philippines). It makes for some heady discussions as the musical training and national composers reflect colonial history.
Contemporary music players are a small subset of musicians worldwide, committed to the music of their own time. All are dedicated to the composers whose music we perform, trying our best to present new works to audiences worldwide. Some contemporary ensembles focus on their national identity, others present a broader overview, but our challenges — finding receptive audiences, educating the public, funding rehearsals and performances — are shared across countries. Soprano Phyllis Bryn-Julson, who performed with Southwest Chamber Music for over 10 years, remarked that “I have performed for 25 people in every country I’ve visited.” In other words, we judge our work on the quality and not the quantity of audience members attending. It is encouraging, however, to see standing-room-only audiences in Hanoi, showing the desire of many Vietnamese to hear creative music of their own composers.
In looking for models, the ensembles of Asia must develop their own path. The American and European models reflect their countries. While we can, and do, share our experiences as advisors and colleagues, these three developing ensembles must find their own paths that reflect their nationalities and reasons for existence. Keep posted for updates as we continue our inspiring and rewarding work in Asia. However, signs are good that these three enterprising ensembles are moving forward everyday to become each country’s model for future ensembles.