Del Sol String Quartet showcases contemporary chamber music

Lauren Hutchison | Staff Writer

From panpipes to Persian modes,

The Del Sol String Quartet. Submitted photo.

brings contemporary composers from around the world to a chamber music setting. At 4 p.m. today, violinists Kate Stenberg and Rick Shinozaki, violist Charlton Lee and cellist Kathryn Bates Williams will fill Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall with the music of living composers.

The San Francisco-based quartet formed in 1995 when Stenberg met Lee. Shinozaki joined in 2003, and Bates Williams joined in 2010. All members of the quartet have connections to the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

The quartet’s violinists and violist do standing performances.

“(Standing up during performances) gives us a bit more physical freedom and helps us with our expressiveness in music,” Shinozaki said.

Del Sol also interacts with its audiences by introducing each piece and providing talking points to give a glimpse of the sound world and language of the composer, he said.

Del Sol is a two-time winner of the Chamber Music America/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. Lee said the group’s programming gives a cross-section to the type of musical arts that are being developed around the world.

“As you can probably imagine, the musical languages, as well as the expressive languages of each composer, is very different,” Lee said. “I think a lot of performances these days don’t really portray the breadth and the wealth of culture that is out there right now.”

Today’s program features works from American composer Gabriela Lena Frank, Canadian composer Ronald Bruce Smith, Cambodian composer Chinary Ung and Persian composer Reza Vali. Smith and Vali will attending today’s performance.

Vali’s piece for this evening’s program, Nayshâboorák, is written in traditional Persian modes. Lee said the tuning system is different from what might be familiar to Western viewers. The piece was conceived as contemporary Persian music and commissioned for Del Sol in 2006.

Smith will add electronic touches to his piece, String Quartet No. 3, which conjures images of fog swirling through the trees and streets of San Francisco. The composer has a close friendship with Stenberg and commissioned this piece for Del Sol in 2008.

In six movements, Frank’s Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout takes audiences on a musical journey, which is inspired by Frank’s travels and musicological studies in the region. Del Sol imitates panpipes, a storm of serenading guitars and even the wails of hired mourners throughout the piece.

Ung’s Spiral X commemorates the Cambodian holocaust and the 1.7 million people killed under the Khmer Rouge regime. The piece is unusual and challenging for Del Sol because each musician must sing, whistle and shout while playing a divergent line of instrumental music. Del Sol and Ung received a standing ovation at the premiere performance, which took place at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress on Oct. 19, 2007.

In addition to chamber music audiences, Del Sol educates the next generation in contemporary music through a variety of youth programs. The group just finished the first of two annual QuartetFest summer workshops, where they coach young quartets with music from Vivaldi to Philip Glass. In collaboration with composer Katrina Wreede, Del Sol performs pieces that young composers create in their Composing Together program.

“Kids are having to go outside of the schools to get any kind of arts education,” Bates Williams said. “Bringing that into the schools and allowing them to see exactly what it is that a composer does, what kind of choices they have to make to create a piece, that’s very exciting for the kids, and it’s kind of revealing when we play the pieces for them — their excitement is quite tangible.”

For Stenberg, education is a natural extension of the quartet’s mission.

“Because we are doing solely contemporary music, we’re constantly being artistic ambassadors for different languages,” Stenberg said. “It comes with the territory that we have to learn how to engage people in something that’s a little bit foreign.”

The quartet’s mission is also forward-thinking.

“We’re sharing the musical language of today with the people who will be speaking it tomorrow,” Lee added.

As part of his own musical education, Lee was involved in the School of Music more than 20 years ago, where he studied with Nathan Gottschalk, members of the Audubon Quartet and with Chaim Zemach, the principal cellist of the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra.

Though she has never visited Chautauqua, Bates Williams has fond memories of her time at the Tanglewood Music Center and of touring the Finger Lakes region of New York.

The members of Del Sol are looking forward to their first group visit to Chautauqua.

“It has this reputation for being such a wonderful intellectual center — culturally, socially, politically, theologically, everything,” Lee said.