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What a Difference Five Decades Make: The Oberlin String Quartet Debuts in Finney Chapel Dec. 5

/ Photo by John Seyfried
  Darrett Adkins '91, Gregory Fulkerson '70, Peter Slowik, and Kyung Sun Lee

In 1958, the same year that Béla Bartók's Violin Concerto No. 1 premiered in Basel, Switzerland, the Oberlin String Quartet won fourth prize in the Concours International de Quatuor, sponsored by H.M. Queen Elisabeth, in Liege, Belgium.

Like the provenance of the Bartók Concerto, inspired by the composer's short-lived relationship with the violinist Stefi Geyer and first heard 50 years after it was composed, it would be nearly that long before music by the Oberlin String Quartet would be heard again – the ensemble disbanded in 1959, after four brief seasons.

Now a new Oberlin String Quartet has emerged. Formed this year, the ensemble makes its first public appearance Sunday, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m. in Finney Chapel with a free concert featuring Beethoven's String Quartet in E-flat, Op. 127 and Brahms' Quintet in F minor, Op. 34, a program that will be reprised at Ashland University's Elizabeth Pastor Recital Hall on Tuesday, Dec. 7. These performances will be followed by a tour that culminates in Cleveland's Reinberger Hall on Feb. 2, 2005.

Members of the quartet are violinist Gregory Fulkerson '70, violinist Kyung Sun Lee, violist Peter Slowik, and cellist Darrett Adkins '91, all of whom are faculty members at the Conservatory. Joining the ensemble for the Brahms Quintet is pianist Angela Cheng, associate professor of piano at the Conservatory.

"We hope to represent the highest musical ideals of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music by performing the great masterworks of the quartet literature in meticulously prepared and compellingly envisioned performances," says Fulkerson of the quartet's mission. "We have the luxury of being able to rehearse in much more detail than many established groups can. Rehearsals are approached with total idealism and the optimism that all technical difficulties will be ultimately resolved. As we get closer to the concerts, I expect that the rehearsals will become increasingly technical."

Each member of the quartet is a distinguished artist in his or her own right, and each possesses a vast array of performance experience, not only individually and with large ensembles, but also with other chamber groups. Fulkerson, the quartet's first violinist, was the founding violinist of the Audubon Quartet. Lee performed as a member of the Trio Con Voce and the Kumho String Quartet. Slowik has performed with the Mirecourt Trio and the Vermeer Quartet. Adkins, a former member of the Flux Quartet, continues to perform with the Zephyr and the Oberlin trios.

The first Oberlin String Quartet also consisted of Conservatory faculty members and was formed at Oberlin in 1955 by violinist Andor Toth and violist William Berman. Violinist John Dalley and cellist Peter Howard joined in 1958.

In the late summer of that year, the quartet performed a series of engagements in Germany and Belgium and collected enthusiastic reviews from the critics. In Liege, at the Concours International de Quatuor, the ensemble was awarded fourth prize (a first prize was not bestowed). A press account from the Brussels newspaper Le Soir reported "the 500 listeners who attended the finals in the hall of the Ste. Libre d'Emulation completely disagreed with the jury in thunderously applauding the Oberlin String Quartet, whose presentation had been particularly impressive in the Quartet by Debussy."

The Oberlin String Quartet–then and now–exemplifies the excellence engendered by a dedication to chamber music that has been at the core of the musical life of Oberlin throughout its history. Fulkerson explains:

"The ability to play chamber music requires particularly complex listening skills–one must hear four voices both separately and together. In addition, the breadth and quality of the repertoire for string quartet is unexcelled, which requires the highest level of analytical skills. For teaching musical skills for string players at a conservatory, nothing is better than quartet work, and lots of it."

According to Fulkerson, it was the genius of David Robertson, dean of the Conservatory from 1949 until his death in 1961, and his advisors in the 1950s to place chamber music in the center of the Oberlin string curriculum, at a significant cost in faculty teaching hours.

"I believe that that intense focus on chamber music has been the crucial element in the success that Oberlin's graduates have had in the professional world," he says.

Following their Finney Chapel debut and Ashland University performance, the quartet is scheduled for two engagements in Seattle, Washington, followed by performances at San Francisco's Gould Theater (located in the California Palace of the Legion of Honor) and Scripps College in Claremont, California. Then the quartet will be back in Ohio for a concert at Cleveland's Reinberger Hall.

In addition to the Beethoven String Quartet, the program for the ensemble's West Coast tour and for Reinberger Hall includes Mozart's String Quartet in B-flat, K. 589. The Oberlin and Ashland concerts are free. Ticket information for the Reinberger concert is available by calling the Severance Hall Box Office at 216-231-1111 or 1-800-686-1141.

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