Serena Canin, a violinist in the Brentano String Quartet, admits that she’s had an unconventional career: Her professional environment has consisted of the same group of four people for nearly 30 years.
The quartet — initially founded at the Juilliard School in 1992 — comprises violinists Mark Steinberg and Canin, violist Misha Amory and cellist Nina Lee.
“We really grew up together,” said Canin.
The ensemble — the School of Music’s quartet-in-residence — takes its name from the “Immortal Beloved” of eminent composer Ludwig van Beethoven, Antonie Brentano, and is one of the most prominent chamber groups active today. The Brentanos have performed in the world’s most prestigious venues including Carnegie Hall, the Library of Congress, the Royal Concertgebouw and the Sydney Opera House.
During the summers when the School of Music is not in session, the Brentanos take their pedagogical expertise to national and international music programs and festivals, including the Aspen Music Festival, the Music Academy of the West and the Edinburgh Festival.
In most small chamber groups, membership changes over time, with musicians leaving and new players filling the empty roles. But the Brentano String Quartet distinguishes itself through the longevity of its members’ time in the group. In its nearly 30-year performance history, the Brentanos only saw one personnel change, when current cellist Lee joined in 1998 to succeed founding member Michael Kannen.
“We’ve had kind of an unusual history,” Canin said. “A lot of quartets have a lot of turnover, but we’ve only had one member change.”
The year after Lee joined the group, the Brentanos became the first ensemble-in-residence at Princeton University, where they performed concerts and mentored students for the next 15 years. In the fall of 2014, the group made its transition to Yale, becoming the quartet-in-residence of the School of Music, where its members give regular recitals and work closely with School of Music students.
Despite their busy performance schedules, the Brentanos value their role as mentors to School of Music students and the current fellowship quartet-in-residence, the Rolston String Quartet, which comprises violinists Luri Lee and Emily Kruspe, violist Hezekiah Leung and cellist Jonathan Lo.
As fellowship quartet-in-residence, the Rolston String Quartet works closely with the Brentanos and helps teach undergraduate students in the chamber music class led by Wendy Sharp, director of chamber music and lecturer in violin at the School of Music. The Rolston String Quartet also maintains a busy concert schedule.
Lee considers working with the Rolston String Quartet “one of the great privileges [the Brentanos] have at the Yale School of Music.”
“We have the opportunity to guide a committed group that is at the crossroads of where instruction and self-discovery are,” Lee said.
The Rolston String Quartet and the Brentanos have more than just their School of Music affiliation in common. Both groups have the same instrument configuration: two violinists, a violist and a cellist. Their compatibility in group composition allows the two ensembles to connect over shared string quartet repertoire and important rehearsal topics including balance between the four instruments.
“Playing in string quartets is such a niche thing,” said Canin. “Few people really understand what it is and how closely a group has to work together … and we know it because we’ve lived it for so long. [The Rolston String Quartet] really understands what the challenges are, how amazing it can be and sort of everything in between because they’re following in what we have done with our lives.”
Chamber music requires a different set of musical and social skills than orchestra or solo playing. German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe described classical chamber music as “four rational people conversing.” The conversational nature of chamber music refers to the passing of musical motifs and melodies between members of the group, creating a sense of responsiveness woven into the composition. To the Brentanos, the combination of four string instruments produces a distinct sound — and challenge.
In Canin’s words, the “four voices [in a string quartet] work very much like a conversation.” While the first violin may seem to carry the majority of the melodic material, Canin emphasized that “everyone contributes equally, and it’s a joining of energy and equal forces.”
As the School of Music’s quartet-in-residence, each of the four members of the Brentano String Quartet is obligated to coach graduate-level musicians as part of their curriculum. Each member is assigned to work with two School of Music chamber groups each semester and guides the graduate ensemble through rehearsals and preparation for performances.
“The Brentano Quartet is an integral part of the chamber music program at YSM,” said Sharp. “All four members of the Brentanos are dedicated coaches, encouraging and empowering the groups while holding them to a high standard.”
Canin highlighted the difficulty of coordinating groups of individual artists who often have conflicting opinions on how to approach and interpret a piece of music.
“[Coaching chamber music] means coming together as a group and forming an interpretation, a context of how a piece should sound and then learning to execute that together,” explained Canin. “You have to lead and join each other at the same time … no one is the leader all the time. The roles are constantly shifting, so it’s a lot harder to come together.”
Sharp said that when she was meeting with first-year graduate students in the fall, it was “clear that one of the main reasons” that they chose Yale was the “chance to work with the Brentanos.”
Many School of Music students confirmed Sharp’s sentiment.
“Having the opportunity to study with the Brentano Quartet has been such a highlight of my time studying at the Yale School of Music,” said Gregory Lewis MUS ’19. “The quartet offers such a mature and intellectual approach to chamber music, and they really inspire students to achieve levels of great depth and emotion in our playing.”
Lewis added that “being able to build relationships and work intimately with such renowned musicians is what elevates Yale’s chamber music studies to such a remarkable level.”
In addition to coaching, the Brentanos also lead classes without their instruments. Last September, in an event called “Career Strategies presents a conversation with the Brentano Quartet,” the four members presented on their artistic careers before an audience of aspiring musicians.
“Yale’s graduate quartet program allows a group the gift of time — time to reflect, time to find out what is meaningful in the process of undertaking the journey of investigating a work, time to work and rework,” said Lee. “What we have tried to do at Yale is to respect this important aspect of growth … we try and gently guide when needed, and encourage a wider sense of curiosity.”
Lee echoed Canin’s thoughts on the uniqueness of coaching in chamber music contexts and the flexibility of teaching style that it requires.
“In our field, ‘the process’ is never a concrete thing,” said Lee. “What works for one journey doesn’t necessarily work for the next.”
“We’ve been incredibly happy at Yale,” said Canin. “[We enjoy] helping people on their journey with chamber music because we think it’s an amazing thing and brings a lot of joy.”
Allison Park | firstname.lastname@example.org