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In Residence: Youthful Avalon String Quartet chosen for NIU faculty

Avalon String Quartet
Provided photo
Avalon String Quartet Provided photo

DeKALB - Members of the Avalon String Quartet, who will become Northern Illinois University's new faculty string quartet in residence in August, are preparing to put their stamp on campus and on Chicago with free concerts Sunday and Monday. But the Avalon's solidly Generation X musicians want audiences to know they aren't trying to replace the Vermeer Quartet: Indeed, none of the four musicians in their late 20s to mid-30s was alive when the Vermeer began its residency some 38 years ago. They're simply bringing a new - and evolving - voice to NIU string music. It comes complete with classic do-it-yourself and Gen-X attitudes: They've booked some of their own gigs, found good management, loaded their own van and traveled America's highways, all in search of some stability. And after a dozen years of hard work, and maybe some uncertainty, they've written their own ticket. The new era begins at 3 p.m. Sunday at Buntrock Hall in the Chicago Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave., and continues at 8 p.m. Monday at the NIU Music Building's Boutell Memorial Concert Hall on campus. Call (815) 753-1546 for information. &#8220It's all very humbling,” said Tony Devroye, violist. &#8220But we don't feel like we are trying to be the Vermeer Quartet or even the next Vermeer Quartet. The string quartet landscape has changed so much since they were established, and there really is never going to be another group like the Vermeer Quartet, neither musically nor professionally.” &#8220We're just trying to do what we think we do well,” added violinist Blaise Magnière, a native of France. &#8220We have to find our own voice - every group has to find its own voice - and eventually evolve with time and keep evolving.” The Avalon Quartet, formed in 1995 at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, will come to NIU thanks to generous financial support from an anonymous donor. They currently are artists-in-residence at Indiana University at South Bend, where they were engaged immediately following a two-year quartet residency at the Juilliard School from 2001-2003. In the NIU School of Music, they all will teach strings as faculty, reach out to young string players as teachers and recruiters and, of course, maintain a performance schedule. &#8220The Vermeer Quartet is one of the finest string quartets in the world, and they have also demonstrated the highest dedication as teachers of their students. That combination of artistry and commitment has made their contributions quite precious to us,” said Harold Kafer, dean of the NIU College of Visual and Performing Arts. &#8220Those precious qualities were also recognized by an anonymous friend of the college in the manner of a substantial gift that will provide perpetual support for our new quartet,” Kafer added. &#8220The Avalon String Quartet was selected from among a number of applicants from the United States and abroad and have demonstrated they will contribute to the legacy begun by the Vermeer Quartet uniquely and effectively as musical artists and educators.” &#8220We welcome the arrival of an outstanding group of individuals in the Avalon Quartet, as they follow in the influential footsteps of the Vermeer Quartet, a respected icon at NIU for a remarkable 38 years,” said Paul Bauer, director of the School of Music. &#8220While they have big shoes to fill, the faculty of the Avalon Quartet are unquestionably ready to join us as colleagues, both intellectually and artistically, and we can expect great things from these wonderful people,” Bauer added. &#8220The university community is in for a treat, as the Avalon Quartet impressed us all with their sublime artistry, insightful perspectives and delightful personalities.” Those personalities will strike a familiar chord with many of their peers who took music lessons as children. Prodded by parents, they began young. They struggled with practicing. They wondered if any of it would amount to anything. At some point, though, their paths diverted from most. They made a firm commitment to their instruments. &#8220I started when I was 8. It was my mother's idea, and I wasn't terribly fond of it, but luckily I stuck with it and fell in love with it,” said violinist Marie Wang, who comes from Canada. &#8220I practiced half an hour a day. By the time I was in 10th grade, I thought, ‘If I want to see where this will take me, I had better take it a little more seriously.' I started practicing more and went to a couple festivals. That's when I knew. I was inspired by the older students.” Cellist Cheng-Hou Lee, whose father is from a musical family in their native Taiwan, took up his instrument at age 4. &#8220It's always been a part of me,” Lee said, &#8220but I never took it seriously. On the one hand, I always knew I was going to be a musician. On the other hand, I didn't know what it meant to be a musician. Once I met some other people, and realized their experiences, I realized I couldn't live without it. This quartet's life realizes the things I love about music. I'm doing something I love.” The lure of chamber music is a strong and unique one. Many composers &#8220save their best work for chamber music and for string quartets,” Devroye said. &#8220From the composer's perspective, it's more intimate and more direct expression than writing for a huge ensemble or for one instrument.” But for the musicians, Magnière said, each piece offers a complex opportunity for interpretation, integration and communication. &#8220You're trying to communicate with the rest of the group and the audience,” he said. And &#8220ideally, we want it to be about the music we're playing. We love music. We love to communicate. We want to bring some of this beautiful art to as many people as we can,” Devroye added. &#8220For me, the mark of a good performance, in terms of what an audience is getting from that performance, is when a member of the audience comes to talk to us backstage. If they say, ‘What an amazing piece of music that was,' then to me that's the highest compliment they can give us, rather than, ‘Wow, you play your instrument well.'” Their sense of balance between instruments and audience extends to their goals and their personal lives. Playing in a quartet requires full-time dedication; trying to maintain a seat in an orchestra at the same time just doesn't work. Residency means half teaching and half performing, and the Avalon members expect to keep &#8220a pretty regular presence on campus.” Some weeks, the road will beckon. Other weeks, the classroom will call. &#8220Some days are all teaching,” Lee said. &#8220Some days, we're just a quartet, and we're rehearsing.” And, some days, the balance must come between naps and feedings and changes. Wang and Magnière are expecting their first child in June.

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