The Danish String Quartet offers a striking scope of expressions amid longtime friendships
When violinists Frederik Øland, Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen, and violist Asbjørn Nørgaard were 11 and 12, they met at a summer music camp, never guessing they would grow up to be part of what The New York Times called “an exceptional quartet.”
“I grew up nearby, and I just signed up because it was a chance to play in a big symphony orchestra, something that I had never really tried," says Nørgaard, now of the Danish String Quartet, which performs at Rackham Auditorium on November 15. "And then I met Rune and Frederik. Honestly, the friendship was more founded on the soccer field than in rehearsal rooms. The vibe of Danish music summer camps is quite loose, more focusing on the love that an amateur can have for music than working hard to build a career in music. I think this priority of values has always been quite important to us, and we are at times still quite shocked when we encounter the steely ambition that also is a part of the classical music world.”
In 2001, a professor at the Royal Danish Academy of Music in Copenhagen took them under his wing and the group turned into professional musicians by the time they were 15 and 16. The playmates didn’t notice the transition.
Norwegian cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin joined the ensemble in 2008, and like the others, he performs for pleasure, a way to hang out with friends. He was a perfect match.
Because they are friends and play together so frequently, the Danish String Quartet's music comes together effortlessly -- and critics say brilliantly. “When I sometimes play ad-hoc chamber music, I am always surprised with how slow the work process seems to be. In this string quartet, everything is extremely efficient,” Nørgaard says “We are almost like a well-coached NFL team, where everything is in balance and everyone knows exactly how to do at his position in order to make plays. On top of this, we are very old friends and it is a privilege to be able to work closely with people that feel like family.”
In Ann Arbor, where the Danish String Quartet will appear through the efforts of the University Musical Society, the group will perform Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, Op. 20, No. 2; Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 1 (also called Ten Preludes); and Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135.
“What I find brilliant in all these three quartets and, I think, the reason that we are still playing this music 100s of years after it is written, is the striking scope of expressions that these composers are finding in a quite simple medium such as a string quartet,” Nørgaard reflects, then goes on to describe the pieces the Danish String Quartet will perform at the concert:
These three composers insisted that it is possible to express anything with these four instruments, and we agree. Before Haydn, classical chamber music wasn't really a thing. It was just some musicians, playing in the corner to entertain a wealthy emperor while he would drink his wine. Then Haydn came along and started to explore and expand things. His Quartet Op. 20/2 is a good example. He is all the time looking for ways to open up the scope of expressions and sounds. In the first movement, he lets the cello lead melodically, giving the viola the role of the bass. The second movement is an almost aggressive, almost baroque movement with long unison passages but also with very silent, introvert moments. The minuet is slightly melancholic, and the last movement a long experiment of sound, with all four instruments engaged in a long, silent fugue. To me, this quartet is at the same time looking backwards to earlier times, but some parts of it still feel modern. Even if you already know the music, you'll still be surprised now and then because it is so unpredictable.”
The Abrahamsen piece has those same values: It looks backwards, sometimes sounding 1,000 years old, and sometimes it sounds like we are inventing the music on the spot. I find this beautiful in art and music generally. Contrasts can live happily next to each other. We can quickly move from a joke to something very deep and there is no conflict. I think this is an important part of human life and I love when it is reflected in music.
The last piece of the program, Beethoven's last quartet, has those very qualities. It is full of wit and humor, but in a split second, it can become insane and threatening like the middle section of the fast second movement. It also contains one of the most beautiful slow movements of any Beethoven quartet. Beethoven wrote lots of amazing slow movements, but I think the third movement of Op. 135 is quite special. It more relaxed, less "dramatic" than some of the other slow movements in his oeuvre. It is a very content movement. It is a good example of the fact that we don't always need to scream and yell to express the deepest messages and emotions.
The four friends perform classical music throughout the world and play an occasional folk music gig. Nørgaard says he’s had wonderful and terrible moments on the road, but the most significant ones are usually not the most dramatic.
“To me, it is often the small moments that are most wonderful," he says. "I enjoy just to sit with a coffee somewhere, suddenly realizing that I am on my way to play a concert with my favorite music with my best friends. It is not too bad.”
Freelance writer Davi Napoleon holds a Ph.D. in theater history, theory and criticism from New York University. Her book is Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theatre.
The University Musical Society presents The Danish String Quartet on Thursday, Nov 15, at Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington St. For tickets and further information visit ums.org.