Southorn returns to Chautauqua with Amphion String Quartet for Logan series



When violinist David Southorn first came to Chautauqua Institution during the 2009 Season, he saw a string quartet perform in the Logan Chamber Music Series and hoped to perform in the same venue with his own string quartet one day.

Four years later, he returns to the grounds with violinist Katie Hyun, violist Wei-Yang Andy Lin and cellist Mihai Marica. The four musicians make up the Amphion String Quartet, which will perform at 4 p.m. today in Elizabeth S. Lenna Hall.

Chautauquans will hear String Quartet No. 9 in G minor by Franz Schubert, “Three Divertimenti for String Quartet” by Benjamin Britten and Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 in A minor.

Fans of the well-known Emerson String Quartet or Orion String Quartet will notice that the Amphion String Quartet joins their ranks as a string quartet without an official first or second violinist. Southorn and Hyun studied violin performance together under Ani Kavafian at the Yale School of Music and prefer to switch musical duties during a concert. Southorn said having two strong violinists is one of the quartet’s strengths.

“We both play the big, wild, loud, crazy stuff,” Southorn said. “I bet if people weren’t looking, they might not know [we switch], even though [Hyun] and I are very different players.”

For today’s performance, Southorn will play first violin for the Schubert string quartet and the Britten divertimenti, while Hyun will play first violin on the Beethoven piece.

The Britten divertimenti is lighter and aimed to entertain rather than impress. Southorn said the last movement of the Schubert piece can get tricky for the first violin part, but it’s not “crazy difficult.”

The Beethoven string quartet is a different story. Southorn said it is “one of [the quartet’s] favorite pieces. It’s one of the greatest pieces … but it can be very difficult to pull off.”

The piece’s difficulty lies in keeping the focus and dedication to expression consistent for each player as they explore Beethoven’s “layers of sound.”

Southorn said the most challenging movement of the piece is the third movement, a beautiful adagio that Beethoven wrote after recovering from a near-fatal illness. The movement has “incredible moments of tension” as a slow-moving melodic line is passed from instrument to instrument. Twice, a faster, lighter andante section appears — each time, Southorn said, it is “the most joyous, light-hearted, beautiful release of that tension.”

The players must handle Beethoven’s music sensitively and delicately as they coordinate rhythm, pitch and the ever-important emotional arc. Southorn said that handing off the melodic line in the most perfect way is difficult, but when they pull it off, the result is profound.

“Three Divertimenti for String Quartet” contrast nicely; Britten wrote them simply to entertain his audience. They consist of a “March,” a “Waltz” and a “Burlesque” that feel youthful, imaginative and original.

Britten was dedicated to writing music that could be enjoyed by the public, not just by those in academic circles. In the past year, the Amphion String Quartet has played throughout New York City in hospitals, retirement centers and even bars, taking music to people who can’t make it to concerts or don’t normally want to go.

Southorn said the quartet especially likes performing at bars, because they can reach a music-loving crowd that may no longer find classical music accessible or relatable. Their performances show people what classical music can offer. Plus, Southorn said, he likes mingling with the crowd and relaxing after a performance.

These opportunities came to them in part because they were named an ensemble in residence with the Lincoln Center’s Chamber Music Series Two program. Their residency officially begins this fall, and they will be part of the program for three years.

Almost all of the artists in the Lincoln Center program are under the age of 30. They represent the up-and-coming generation of professional classical musicians, and the more established chamber musicians often work with the younger generation to foster their careers.

Southorn said that being named an ensemble in residence for the program is an incredible honor.

“It’s kind of like a dream come true,” he said.