Over the summer, the School of Music announced that the Omer Quartet — which includes violinists Mason Yu and Erica Tursi, violist Jinsun Hong and cellist Alex Cox — will hold the new fellowship quartet-in-residence for the next two years.
The quartet’s many accolades include first prize at the 2017 Young Concert Artists International Auditions and Grand Prize and Gold Medal at the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition in 2013. The musicians come to Yale after residencies at the Bravo! Vail Music Festival, the University of Maryland and the New England Conservatory. The ensemble aims to be “musical lightning rods for the audience” and “share in an experience of amazement and awe for the pieces that we perform,” said Cox.
Wendy Sharp ’82, director of chamber music and lecturer in violin at the School of Music, characterized the Omer Quartet’s playing as “sincere and clear music making.” She added that “all of them are strong players on their own and together, of course, it adds up to being much more.”
The extensive selection process for the School of Music fellowship involved an online pre-screening audition, where quartets submitted several recordings, letters of recommendation, resumes and repertoire lists. Select quartets were offered a live audition on campus to play before a panel. This panel included the Brentano Quartet — the faculty quartet-in-residence — School of Music associate professor of piano and Deputy Dean Melvin Chen ’91 and Sharp. After deliberation, they recommended the Omer Quartet to the Dean of the School of Music, Robert Blocker.
“We’re looking for a group that has a sense of who they are and a point of view but is open to exploring new ideas,” said Brentano Quartet violinist Mark Steinberg.
While at Yale, the Omer Quartet will work closely with the world-renowned Brentano Quartet, playing for the senior ensemble about eight times each semester.
“It goes without saying that [the Brentano Quartet] is one of the top in the world and an opportunity to work with them is a once in a lifetime experience,” said Yu, one of the Omer Quartet violinists.
Yale’s fellowship program is unique in focusing on giving a quartet the freedom to shape the mentorship program to fit their needs and develop their distinct voice.
“We give them a lot of space to do what they want to do and we let them define the program,” said Steinberg. “It’s important to have a group that’s ready to really be working on their own and have input but be self-led so they can grow into who they really are.”
As the fellowship ensemble, the Omer Quartet will also help teach the undergraduate chamber music class led by Sharp.
Formerly a violinist in the Franciscan String Quartet — which once held the School of Music fellowship position at Yale — Sharp advocated for and initiated the fellowship quartet’s role in teaching the class.
She emphasized the benefits of mentoring undergraduates and characterized the experience as essential for the Omer Quartet to “learn how to hone their skills as coaches.” She also noted that undergraduate teaching increases the quartet’s involvement in the Yale community — each member of the quartet gives biweekly coaching sessions to two of the nine undergraduate groups in the class.
“Teaching helps me with my own thinking and creativity and that’s an enormous benefit to the groups that come to Yale,” said Steinberg.
Quartet playing calls for intense commitment and communication between all four members. Almost 10 years ago, Yu, Tursi and Cox met as 18-year-olds studying at the Cleveland Institute of Music in a chamber music class taught by two Yale alumni: Peter Salaff MUS ’66 of the Cleveland Quartet and Annie Fullard MUS ’86 of the Cavani Quartet.
From the beginning of their musical journey, according to Cox, these coaches helped them establish a strong connection to chamber music even in their early stages. He added that they learned “how to treat playing in a quartet with empathy, commitment and a desire to search for the deep communicative power of each piece [of music].”
2014, when Hong joined the quartet, marks what Yu defined as the quartet’s professional start.
“We’ve been through a lot together musically and in life and having the community of the quartet there through all of it has been really memorable,” Cox said.
One challenge of playing in a quartet is balancing two priorities: creating a cohesive sound while maintaining the four voices. Yu emphasized that the group members each “have a strong individual voice.”
“We spend many hours crafting our interpretations together and homogenizing intonation and phrasing, but we also celebrate how different each of us are as people and musicians,” said Cox.
Over the last few years, the Omer Quartet has prioritized staying together while at times living in different cities. After their studies in Cleveland, Yu and Hong went to graduate school at the New England Conservatory in Boston, while Tursi and Cox moved to New York City to study at the Juilliard School.
For two years, the quartet devised, in Cox’s words, a “kind of couch surfing rehearsal schedule.” Every week for almost half a year, one pair of quartet members would make the over 200-mile trip to the others’ city and rehearse all day for three or four days.
“[The process] was grueling, but in the end, it really demonstrated each of our commitments to the group and that gave us the trust that we were in the right quartet as we embarked on early professional life together,” said Cox.
The Omer Quartet’s current mission combines performance and teaching with community outreach. While at the University of Maryland in fall 2017, the quartet created a concert series in the Metro-DC area for Music for Food, a musician-led hunger relief initiative. Through the series, the Omer Quartet performed with guest musicians and volunteered with local food pantries to raise funds and awareness to support local hunger relief efforts.
“It’s sort of a model for musicians to enact social change through chamber music and collaboration,” said Yu.
Through the concerts for Music for Food, the quartet helped create over 10,000 meals and raise nearly 5,000 dollars.
The quartet demonstrates its commitment to outreach and sharing classical music through their performances in libraries, schools, community centers and prisons. In these concerts, they combine an hourlong program interspersed with dialogue between the performers and audience. In their short time at Yale, they have already performed a concert at a senior center in New Haven.
“I think that’s one of the most inspiring things for us [to do],” said Hong.
Hong describes a memory of the quartet’s performance in a prison last year as a particularly memorable concert.
“When we were playing, [the audience members] were really focused on and engaged with the music,” said Hong.
Sharing their music both on and off the concert stage is one of “the main reasons that we play,” Hong added.
In addition to outreach, the quartet also expressed interest in engaging with Yale community members beyond the School of Music.
“They want to develop projects that involve literature, or dance or theatre or science and for that there are resources at Yale, and it can be incredibly fertile for them, which is pretty different from being at a conservatory,” said Steinberg. “For the right group that’s creative and curious like the Omer Quartet, [being at Yale] can help.”
At Yale, the Omer Quartet will continue to develop their identity as an ensemble.
“We all have such distinct personalities from each other and come to life’s joys and struggles with different experiences and instincts,” said Cox. “I like to think that it offers us more ways to connect with the music and to navigate quartet life.”
This semester, the Omer Quartet’s on campus performances include concerts in Sudler Hall and Morse Recital Hall in October and December, respectively.
Phoebe Liu | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Sept. 13: A previous version of this story stated that Erica Tursi went to graduate school at the New England Conservatory, and Jinsun Hong attended the Juilliard School. In fact, Tursi went to Juilliard, while Hong attended the New England Conservatory.