This past Friday night, the Cecilia String Quartet — a fabulous ensemble of four young women from Canada — gave a recital at Pick-Staiger at Northwestern. My fellow Q violinist Kate, and Q cellist emeritus Liz, were with me in the audience. So were our longtime Q supporters/life partners Shawn and Tyler, who know a thing or two about chamber music at this point. Sadly, it had been quite awhile since I went to hear a string quartet recital — I guess I’m spending too much time with my string quartet. So it felt like a very special opportunity to hear the Cecilias. They are excellent.
I’d been following this quartet for awhile. I can’t remember when I first heard of them — it may have been when they won the Banff Competition in 2010. They charmed me again when I saw this interview they did with Gian Gomeshi on Q (a Canadian talk show, which shares its namesake letter with us). They seemed like a smart, approachable, interesting, and great quartet. And as someone who co-founded a string quartet of all women, I couldn’t help but look to them as an inspiration and a model.
The quartet made a deep impression on me. Their sound is VERY transparent and clear — in general, their sound felt on the smaller side, with endless gradations of piano — but then they tear into a truly fortissimo passage, as they did a handful of times, the effect is astounding. I was particularly moved by the uniformity and clarity that the violinists share. As a second violinist, I often worry that my musical contributions are concealed from the audience, but Sarah Nematallah’s work as the Cecilia’s second fiddle was never in the background. In Mozart, Shostakovich, Beethoven and in the contemporary work by Stacy Garrop, she sounded just as soloistic and refined as the first violinist, Min-Jeong Koh. Min’s playing had so much transparency, color, and life — particularly in the Mozart, their flair and buoyancy in all her lines was delightful. I LOVED Stacy Garrop’s String Quartet no. 4, “Illuminations,” and I hope our quartet gets to play some of her fantastic music someday.
Over drinks after the concert, I chatted with my colleagues about what a very different experience it is to watch a quartet of four young women — a quartet of our peers, in almost every sense — give a concert. Gone is the distance, authority and gravitas that society more easily bestows on a group of salt-and-pepper-haired men in their middle age. Liz, Kate and I recalled some of the gendered comments we’ve received in coachings: “You guys sound like a bunch of polite women!” or “The sound is too — well — voluptuous.” Gender is still very much a factor in music performance. Sometimes, in musical discussions, masculine is good and feminine is, well, bad. I imagine femininity is also a factor in the press and reviews that Cecilia receives. I was deeply satisfied to find that they are masterful indeed in their own approach to the music. Rock on, ladies.