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Planning and Performing Premieres

April 24, 2024

By Nicky Swett

Violinist William Fedkenheuer discusses quartet dynamics and getting to know brand-new music.

Nicky Swett: With so much music we learn now, it’s possible to listen to dozens of recordings or videos before playing a note. How does your group go about preparing a brand-new work, of which there is likely no existing performance?

William Fedkenheuer: Over the decades together, we’ve developed a framework for how we approach new works. We open with 1–3 rehearsals of reading the piece and getting to know it. Depending on how difficult the individual parts and score are, this could be playing it very slowly (sometimes down to 5% of tempo), though the goal is to get through it, figure out where things are supposed to be, and hear it. We’ll play through a movement and repeat it several times until we feel like we have a sense of it. At the end of each rehearsal, we will do a run-through to get the feel of what the complete piece sounds like. From there, it’s rehearsal the same as we approach all of our repertoire: character, colors, balance, phrasing, leadership mechanics, and everything else we can throw at it.

The main difference is we can ask questions to a living composer. We’ll be texting, emailing, calling, sending videos, and zooming about any questions that pop up, along with suggestions or ideas that we have. Our goal is to have time in person with the composer where we can experiment in the same space. It’s helpful for us and for them, as they’ve also never heard it outside of their own head or instrument. It gives us a perspective on issues that composers have to navigate, which we can then apply to composers we aren’t able to speak to directly anymore.

NS: When do you usually play in person for composers? Early on in the process? At dress rehearsals?

WF: In an ideal world, we would receive a new work nine months ahead of the premiere and set aside one week of rehearsal time to get to know it upon delivery. We would work for three days and then bring in the composer to work out issues, changes, ideas, and then we would put it away as a quartet. Six months before the premiere, we would bring it back and repeat everything above. Four months before the premiere, we would put it into the regular rehearsal rotation and begin tending to it on a consistent basis, plan for a one- or two-day session with the composer, then play it for the composer the day before the premiere and release it to the world the next night.

We leave ourselves open and curious as a team to what the composer might add. We have to make decisions as to how we think it might go, and it’s about 50% of the time that the piece significantly shifts and even gets recomposed after these times together. Even after the premiere we’ll continue to work with the composer. Kevin Puts’s Home is a great example of this: two years after we started performing the work, Kevin composed a different ending. We rehearsed and workshopped it, tried it out in a concert, and then moved back to the original!

NS: Kevin Puts has written several quartets for your group. What is distinct about his writing in this piece?

WF: Home was inspired by the refugee crisis that started in 2015. Around the globe, millions of refugees abandoned their homes and sought asylum in order to be safe, and to establish what they dreamed would be a new home. The opening of the work is soulful and calm, a space of warmth, calm, love. As it evolves, it becomes more disjunct as the listener gets put through the activity of travel. Parts crash against one another and we reach a state of fierceness, uncertainty, fear: all the emotions that one experiences in upheaval. Out of this, we return to the original theme, in a different character and different place, completing the journey and creating a new home.

The opening is pure Kevin: colorful, simple, and yet it cuts to your heart and soul. The more severe parts of Home include textures, sounds, and technical challenges that he is always throwing at us in each commission. He has told us “I can write anything and I know that you’ll play the heck out of it so I don’t hold back.” It takes hours of practice and rehearsal, but we are always thrilled to have a new piece from Kevin that we can call our own.

NS: Caroline Shaw’s Microfictions was also written for you. What are the six short movements of her work inspired by? What are some of her compositional strategies for depicting short narratives in music?

WF: Caroline wrote this for us during the 2020 pandemic, when we were all experiencing the isolation of being in one place, often alone. She discovered an author on Twitter named T. R. Darling (@QuitePineTrees) who was using the text limit to tell very short stories. [Shaw] fell in love with the form and began writing her own. She decided to set each movement of this quartet to a “Microfiction” of her own. We love to read these in performance to highlight the connections. Caroline is wonderful at bringing text to sound and sound to text. I can’t wait to share the last movement—we’ve had everything from giggles to absolute stark silence in response. It’s pure magic!

NS: Pieces for French horn and string quartet, like Eleanor Alberga’s and Dai Fujikura’s works on this program, are a rare treat. What are some of the challenges of playing together with horn, and what are some ways in which this combination of instruments works well? 

WF: The biggest challenge is always creating a sound world that incorporates the uniqueness of the combination. The horn has such a beautiful, resonant color and at the same time can completely obliterate the string quartet in one quick burst! (Though sometimes that can be a good thing...) French horn players have some of the most incredible ears, and their sense of pitch, balance, and artistry is always beautifully refined. It’s a joy to have that added to our ensemble. It makes us feel like we’re finally starting to fulfil the old joke about string quartets: that one day we’ll grow into a real orchestra.

Cellist, writer, and music researcher Nicky Swett is a program annotator and editorial contributor at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.