Coffee, Conversation . . . Careers in Quartets . . . The perspectives of quartet violists: Ivo Van der Werff and James Dunham by Lynsey Anderson

There are two main reasons I am writing this article: Having spent 7 years in college between my undergrad and grad career in music, most of my dearest friends are fellow musicians. At least some of them have a curiosity, if not a full blown passion, for a career in chamber music. So, I thought it would be relevant and interesting to interview two wonderful, successful, and accessible violists about their experiences, thoughts, and advice from their long careers in professional quartets. Secondly, with the dawn of my own career on the horizon, I feel that what I learned by talking to Ivo Van der Werff and James Dunham is very applicable even beyond a career in chamber music. Whether you are interested in how to make it with your up and coming quartet, or if you are merely somebody who is curious about the qualities that make for being a great person and will affect anything you do for the better, I would encourage you to continue reading.

When I was brainstorming questions for the interview, I had this preconceived idea (based on nothing except my own naivety) that Mr. Van der Werff and Mr. Dunham, having come from quartets on opposite sides of the Atlantic, would have a lot of contrast in experience and opinions about certain matters of quartet playing. What I discovered though, to my surprise, is an amazing continuity in their responses. Though they had different quartets, knew different people, lived in different countries, and lead different lives, I think it is significant that they both ended up in the same place: teaching at Rice University. They also have a genuine and honest demeanor in common; what you see is what you get with these guys along with a mutual respect for each other.

Getting Started

Mr. Dunham’s background includes having gone to the Interlochen Arts Academy for high school. I remember Interlochen. I did not experience Interlochen in the same way as Mr. Dunham, of course, because I never went to school there, but I remember distinctly the cool breeze through the pines of northern Michigan . . . and the fact that the town of Interlochen itself has a smaller population than the Arts Academy it’s built around. Inside the walls, young people from all over the world share the same classrooms and get intensive, vocational training in classical music. Outside the walls of the Academy, Interlochen lives up to the stereotype of small-town, in-the-middle-of-the-boondocks Michigan. The people might not know the difference between a violin and a viola, but they know the Academy is something special . . . and they will tell you that as well as epic stories of how to survive blizzards . . . and they might give you tips on how to spit a cherry pit, chop firewood, or how to get that dog-sized raccoon out of your attic. So yes, Interlochen has quite the dichotomy of culture, and yes, young Mr. Dunham got a head start on his career in this unique place playing violin.

Mr. Van der Werff, on the other hand, who was raised by a Dutch family grew up in Letchworth (a small English town near London) and participated in a Saturday morning music school where he played 3rd violin in the orchestra (because there were no violas). It was here that he had chamber music coachings all the way through his teens with their resident quartet. Mr. Van der Werff remarks how his little town also had a remarkable chamber music concert series where practically every month a major professional quartet came to perform. Hence, from an early age, Mr. Van der Werff was exposed to the likes of the Amadeus, Kodaly, Hungarian, and Aeolian Quartets regularly, and the idea of wanting to be in a professional quartet was sort of always present.

It is lucky for both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff that they had childhoods immersed in music. Music was just a part of their lives growing up, and it is only in hindsight that they both recognize how influential their youth was in the direction their lives would take. Music for them wasn’t like a kind of conversion where they suddenly and unexpectedly were enlightened to the fulfillment of a life in music . . . but nonetheless, both men were not deprived of a conversion-like experience when it came to switching to viola.

The Viola Just Fit Better . . .

Now “conversion” might imply a stronger, more significant experience than what is truly representative for Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff. Maybe it was more of an “aha!” moment. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I am slightly jealous, though. I started on viola, and so I don’t know what it is like to play violin and then fall in love with the richer undertones or the special harmonic role that a viola offers. I’m also of a small stature (five feet tall, hands that barely reach an octave on the piano, feet that don’t always touch the ground when I’m sitting all the way back on my orchestra chair . . . ), so I also don’t know what it feels like to discover that there is a stringed instrument that not only sounds better to me, but also fits me better physically. At the same time, though, I have had affirmations that I made the right decision about playing viola even if I was an uninformed sixth grader in my public school string orchestra program. Transcending the desire for lower tones and/or the added maneuverability that comes from extra spacing between the fingers as compared to the violin (which, again, is something only people like Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff, who are both over six feet tall with large hands, can appreciate), the viola is a match made in heaven, as they say, when paired with the right personality.

What is a typical viola personality type, anyway? According to Mr. Dunham, the personality that many violists have (there are exceptions—I must make this disclaimer) mirror the role that the violist plays in the quartet: a sort of supporting role that has the power to liberate the solos happening around them. It is akin to a social situation where a successful conversation takes place between two people where the violist is the one who asks the right questions to inspire answers from the 1st violinist, so his personality and cleverness can shine through. It is a supporting role, with the sporadic moment of spotlight (but not too much spotlight). It is perfect for someone who is independent and confident, but also has a natural tendency to be a bit more shy or reserved. Yes, violists have a desire to be recognized just like anybody else, but . . . occasionally is often enough. My orchestra director in high school used to say that violists held a role in the quartet that people only took notice of when it wasn’t there. The viola part is subtle like that, and it gives violists a slight thrill. It is knowing a secret, like a magician, that we are an integral part of musical “tricks” or artistry. If everybody knew the secrets of viola playing, some of the magic would disappear. Mr. Dunham’s analogy is that the violist is the filling of the quartet “sandwich.” It is so true in many ways: for example, the violist’s part is usually somewhere between the bread slices of melody and chord root. Another aspect of Mr. Dunham’s analogy is that the viola is the middle voice between the top slice of the treble realm and the bottom slice of the bass realm.

The role of the viola in Mr. Van der Werff’s terms is “facilitating” the happiness and comfort of other people. Mr. Dunham takes this idea and has come up with whole workshops about what it means to be an inner voice player. Using something like the octaves in the Ravel Quartet in F (first movement) or the second movement of the “Trout” Quintet, he is able to demonstrate how the viola, with a keen sense of musical anticipation, can liberate a soloist. It is basically a fine balance between being too careful about what the soloist is doing and not being careful enough. It is both an art and a science in a way, which has consumed the drive and passion of Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff in their many years of professional quartet playing; but how did the viola come into the picture for these two in the first place?

For Mr. Dunham, it was his summer at Tanglewood after his freshman year of college that convinced him that he wanted to be a violist full time. During his senior year at the Interlochen Arts Academy, he studied the viola as well as the violin and continued on both instruments during his freshman year at Carleton College, a Liberal Arts college with a fine music department. When he applied to Tanglewood that year, he offered his services as either a violinist or violist. Of course, when he was accepted to come as a violist, Mr. Dunham didn’t even have a viola of his own and had to buy one quickly! Mr. Van der Werff also has a great anecdote about his humble viola beginnings. When he was about 13, a violist was needed to play in a quartet at his Saturday morning music school, and everybody pointed to him because he was “the biggest fellow.” He said that he played an early Mozart quartet that day with somebody sitting next to him telling him what finger to play on what string as the notes went by. He said, “The rest is history. I never looked back after that, and a couple years later I was a violist exclusively.” The circumstances in which Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff found themselves in professional quartets have about the same amount of happenstance.

It’s not all happenstance, of course: if you’re a violinist, you’re bound to discover the viola, and if you’re trained as a musician, you’re bound to have a connection to a professional string quartet somehow; whether or not you were tutored by one or have an acquaintance—perhaps a classmate in a quartet—or maybe you simply have autographed program notes from a concert. The point is, as a musician in a music school, it’s hard to not have looked a professional quartet member in the eye at some point—and that’s a very important networking phenomenon that comes about naturally, seeing as the music community is rather small. But . . . not every musician has the same doors of opportunity open, and not every musician is at a point in their careers/lives where they can actually step through that door when it opens. So, both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff would say their careers in quartets came about by . . . happenstance.

In the right place at the right time . . .

Mr. Van der Werff was different than Mr. Dunham in that he knew he wanted to be in a quartet before he was actually in one. He actively tried to put a quartet together while he was a student at the Royal College of Music, but for various reasons that had mostly to do with people not getting along, it never worked out. “A quartet works by being able to resolve conflict,” remarks Mr. Van der Werff, who attributes this important quality as the reason why student quartets rarely stick together for more than a couple semesters and consequently why professional quartets are relatively rare. He explains that besides being able to resolve conflict, as only one member of a quartet you have to find three other people with the same passionate dedication to making great music in order to “make it” as a professional group. Those two qualities rarely coincide among a group of four people, let alone with the right instrumentation. For Mr. Van der Werff it was literally a call out of the blue from the Medici quartet, which was already 12 years established, that set in motion the next 25 years of his life. “It was a dream,” he said “and the timing was perfect.” What Mr. Van der Werff meant by the timing was that he just happened to be finishing up his studies in Germany, and any questions he had about what the next step was going to be had suddenly been answered.

Another part of the perfect timing, however, had to do with the quartet’s repertoire and undertakings. Any professional string quartet wants to do the Beethoven cycles, but one piece of advice that Mr. Van der Werff passes along is “that doing the Beethoven cycles is like climbing Mt. Everest. You shouldn’t do it until you have at least 10 years of experience.” Well, since Mr. Van der Werff stepped into a 12-year-old group, he got the chance to play the Beethoven cycles as a young man only a few years after he officially joined. Playing Beethoven, he says, provided the most incredible musical experiences he can recall to date: “In 27 years of quartet playing, there might have only been two or three occasions where I felt we really did justice to the music. But one of those occasions happened for me when I was playing the Beethoven Cavatina [Quartet No. 13, opus 130, mvt. 5] . . . something happened, and the memory of it still gives me goose bumps.” Mr. Van der Werff asserts that just having one indescribable experience like that is worth his whole performing career, and it established a kind of unique closeness to the other members of his quartet.

I can see the significance of this, because I sat there and was tempted to offer words like “unworldly” or “spiritual” to help categorize what he felt that night. Though his experience might have been those things and more, it’s not a simple matter that can be understood by anyone who wasn’t there. Indeed, it is those inexplicable moments that give musicians a hunger to keep plugging away whether or not there is monetary compensation and often (especially if you’re a quartet member) at the expense of time that could have been spent with the family (Mr. Van der Werff’s wife often referred to herself as a “quartet widow,” and Mr. Dunham added up his travel time for tax purposes to realize that he was away from home literally 6 months out of the year).

Mr. Dunham’s out-of-the-blue phone call came from the Cleveland Quartet. This phone call happened after 15 years of playing with the Sequoia Quartet as the founding violist. “Quartets don’t usually ‘raid’ other quartets—the chemistry is too intimate for such an overt move. Corporations and orchestras commonly seek out members of competing organizations, but string quartets must be more cautious.” Mr. Dunham ultimately went on to be in the Cleveland Quartet for nine years after that phone call. Again, the timing was right. While the Sequoia Quartet had won great acclaim—including the Naumburg International Chamber Music Award—and produced many recordings, after replacing two members who left the quartet it became clear that another chapter was opening. It was at this point that the Cleveland Quartet dared even give an exploratory phone call! Of course, it is hard to imagine not accepting an offer from a quartet that can boast of so many accolades, and the final proof of the chemistry was the group’s Grammy Award, won with Mr. Dunham in its final season. It just goes to show, however, that any independent career move on the part of a quartet member is a really big deal, because it directly affects the future of three other people. Depending on the circumstances, it can be a little like deciding to abandon your marriage. Mr. Dunham chuckles as he explains the joke about how “a quartet is like a four-way marriage with all of the disadvantages and none of the advantages!” It is clear, as Mr. Dunham looks back on that phone call, that he is thankful the opportunity came about and that he took it.

Since Mr. Dunham was a member of the Cleveland Quartet and the Sequoia Quartet for a combined total of 24 years, it is hard to say that he identifies himself more with one than the other. I noticed, however, much of his practical advice for up and coming quartets came with anecdotes from his time touring with the Sequoia Quartet around the Western side of the country. The Sequoia Quartet formed when the new, young faculty of the recently established California Institute of Art, where Mr. Dunham went to college, freely collaborated with students. The group just sort of popped out of the mix, and Mr. Dunham considers himself lucky that he happened to be a part of it, “In the right place at the right time.” Again, the success of the quartet is something that Mr. Dunham credits to the desire of the group to share the experience of great music making. Mr. Dunham explains that in the beginning, they didn’t even have a manager. They went to a friend who agreed to act as their manager so they could say, “This is ‘so and so,’ and I represent the Sequoia Quartet . . . hire them,” as opposed to, “We are the Sequoia Quartet . . . hire us.” This seems like a minor detail, but according to Mr. Dunham, it makes a big difference when you are pounding the pavement for the first time and trying to arrange concerts. He went on to say, though, that “real” management and good management is very important because, as Mr. Dunham points out, “Otherwise there are tons of people who will always take advantage of the fact that your groups just want to play and so they can get away with paying next to nothing [or not paying at all] . . . free isn’t good.”

Having said this, though, the flip side is that being in a quartet can’t be about the money. More often than not, a professional quartet will be lucky to eke out a living. The way Mr. Dunham breaks down the income, based on a Chamber Music America survey, is that for any professional touring performance, 20 percent off the top goes to the manager, and after travel expenses you might end up with 40% to be split up between the four members of the quartet. Obviously, 10 percent of any income will rarely amount to very much, and that’s the reality of it. Basically, the quartet’s combined income, if you’re successful, will put food on the table and pay the bills. Playing in a quartet looks like a very glamorous thing because the performances are what get publicized, but there is also the strenuous amount of rehearsal time that gets put in on top of busy teaching schedules. (Most professional quartets have to supplement their income by teaching at a college. Mr. Dunham says, though, that both of his quartets were very dedicated to teaching and believed profoundly that they learned a great deal for themselves by doing it.) The reward and return when it comes to quartet playing then comes back to the music, where we started. Dunham quotes Lionel Tertis, who said, “Just play everything!” In other words, play the classics, play the new stuff, play the high paying/high brow concerts to a full house at a fancy hall, and play the volunteer concerts to a handful of people at their local community arts café series. I asked Mr. Dunham to put into words the best part about being in a professional quartet. His reply came without any hesitation: “If you stay with music long enough you’ve made decisions about every 32nd note. But then you go past this stage, and when a new idea comes along—it’s easy to catch and respond to. And so in a way—it’s very liberating and rare, because you have to read each other so intimately. It’s an incredible experience.”

Muß es sein? Es muß sein . . .

Both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff are as busy as ever at the Shepherd School at Rice University, corralling the program’s 25 or so student violists and coaching several chamber groups a semester, participating on student recital panels, being involved with faculty recitals, as well as a whole host of other creative endeavors that professorship allows. Mr. Van der Werff, for example, has published his own book on viola technique, and both professors teach at various summer schools/festivals. My point is that it’s hardly accurate to say that I was interviewing two guys that are even close to retirement (besides, I’m not sure “retirement” ever really happens when you’re a musician). No, they are still in the full swing of their careers, but . . . they both have seen a major chapter in their careers (and lives) come to a close—that of playing in a professional quartet. It is this closure in combination with their quartet playing hindsight that makes them a dynamic and well respected team at Rice. Plus, like icing on the cake, they both happen to be very open and inviting people who hope to help and inspire the next generation. So, their closing thoughts are put forth in the next paragraphs. Some of these thoughts are specific to quartets that want to embark on an exciting career in chamber music, and still other thoughts are pearls of wisdom that can be used in any scenario:

What sorts of things are going to give an aspiring quartet an edge in such a competitive field of performing? Networking, of course, is key and being able to reach a broad scope of people. Mr. Dunham says he’s amazed at the incredible resources now that were not available when he was young, such as e-mail or online social networks like Facebook or Twitter. Also, there are great networking opportunities and resources available through the organization Chamber Music America, which Mr. Dunham brought up several times during the course of the interview. Besides networking, a quartet should also be in tune to what audiences want. Mr. Van der Werff explained that he came from a generation where people wanted to go to a big concert hall to see a chamber music performance, but that trend is starting to change. He said, “You look at some of the young quartets, and they are ‘bringing the music to the people’ in a sense by lining up performances in all kinds of weird and wonderful venues where you wouldn’t expect classical quartet music [like in jazz clubs, bars, parks, museums, office buildings, etc…]” Above all, Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff agree that there has to be an intense dedication to the art. It is one thing to invent new performance venues, but both caution against abandoning the traditional repertoire:

Mr. Dunham: “Symphonies are great and grand and there are favorite players. But chamber rep . . . it’s much more personal and accessible to an audience. My advice for maintaining an ‘edge’ would be to find new ways to mix music and talk to audiences. They love that sort of thing now.”

Mr. Van der Werff: “Never lose sight of the core rep., because that is what makes a good quartet for 10 years, which is 1000 hours a year, which is about 3 hours a day . . . all this in order to achieve higher art.”

Last, but not least, a quartet must have a group enthusiasm that reflects itself within its sound. Mr. Van der Werff insists that a great quartet is always alive and always listening to each other and always with a heightened awareness that you are taking care of your own playing in terms of the other members. He emphasizes “trust” as the main component of the relationship among your quartet mates: “It goes way beyond just getting along with each other.” There is also the awareness that group enthusiasm has to be nurtured despite financial obstacles or personal hardships. Mr. Dunham says, “There will always be people that will backstab. Life isn’t fair like that. But as a group, you find the people that don’t backstab, and you hang out with them!” It is the group enthusiasm that will fuel the kind of entrepreneurial spirit that is absolutely crucial for getting work because, as Mr. Dunham puts it, “The sky is the limit depending on your imagination as a quartet, but you can’t sit around and wait for the phone to ring.” I like that last quote, because of course it’s true that neither Mr. Dunham nor Mr. Van der Werff were sitting around waiting for the phone to ring . . . so in a way it is ironic that it was that unexpected phone call that played such an important role in both of their . . . how should I put it . . . quartet destinies.

In closing, both Mr. Dunham and Mr. Van der Werff have special moments associated with their last concert with their respective groups. For Mr. Van der Werff, it was a very sentimental and emotional experience walking out onto the platform for the last time to a thunderous applause. The concert had been planned with pieces that the Medici Quartet had specialized in and made their own over the years, and there were lots of friends and family in the audience. The last official Medici Quartet concert was a special memory for Mr. Van der Werff for many reasons including that their guest pianist who performed the Elgar with them was a good friend who has since passed away. The concert went by in a flash, but Mr. Van der Werff vividly describes his feelings as he left the stage at the end: “My first reaction was that, 25 years of my life just [snaps his fingers] gone like that? It’s extremely weird. You realize the things you’ve done and accomplished, but it’s still weird.” Mr. Dunham’s last performance with the Cleveland Quartet took place in the Reinberger Chamber Hall at Severance Hall in Cleveland, where the quartet originated. I was able to picture the space vividly from having spent four years attending preconcert lectures for the Cleveland Orchestra there while I attended the Cleveland Institute of Music for my undergrad. I remember most the cozy lighting and the paintings on the walls that made it look like you were looking through windows out into beautiful, sunny, pastoral scenes (a particularly comforting and beautiful distraction from a typical Cleveland winter day along Euclid Avenue). Mr. Dunham said they played an encore that he really liked. It was his favorite movement from none other than Beethoven, his quartet in F Major, opus 135. He tells me this and looks over at Mr. Van der Werff with a certain gleam in his eye. That quartet has the famous epigraph rather fitting for a quartet’s final concert I suppose: “Muß es sein? Es muß sein,” which is translated, “Must it be? It must be.”

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