Balourdet Quartet will aim for transcendence at Morris Museum concert

balourdet quartet interview

PHOTOS BY KEVIN W. CONDON

The Balourdet Quartet (from left, Justin DeFilippis, Russell Houston, Angela Bae and Benjamin Zannoni).

The bright young things of the Balourdet Quartet may play different string instruments but they speak the same virtuosic language. The foursome are racking up grand prizes and gold medals for their technical prowess and musical sensibilities that are crisp and vital.

Morris Township is the next stop on their whirlwind summer tour of concerts, master classes, workshops, competitions and coachings. The quartet makes its Morris Museum Lot of Strings Music Festival debut, Aug. 13 at 8 p.m., in a concert of works by Hugo Wolf, Béla Bartók and Ludwig van Beethoven. It will be held on the museum’s elevated parking deck, with guests invited to bring their own chairs and refreshments for live chamber music against a sunset backdrop.

In a Zoom session, violinist Justin DeFilippis shares a preview of the concert’s narrative arc. “The throughline is that each piece becomes more intense and, by the end, we’ve reached this catharsis of Beethoven’s Opus 131,” he says. “But the point of it is transcendence.

“We begin with a very light and charming appetizer, the Italian Serenade by Hugo Wolf, and going to a kind of fully inspired piece by Bartók (String Quartet No. 4 in C major), which puts the ideas of the democracy of the string quartet in its absolute limits of all of these voices interacting with each other. The Beethoven comes out of that with a perspective that it was one of the very last works he ever wrote — the second-to-last complete work, in fact — and he’s pondering the meaning of life and the transcendence of life in the face of so much of his own guilt and tragedy, and overcoming that with defiance.”

Quartet culture is unique and multifaceted. On the surface, it’s about playing hallowed chamber music repertoire with like-minded peers. At its heart, it’s about four individual voices communicating as one. Some quartets boost their collective cohesive voice over their individual ensemblist strengths, and vice versa.

It was the biggest question on my mind during my interview with the quartet. They spoke from Boston, where they are currently in residence at the New England Conservatory’s Professional String Quartet Program. Fresh-faced and dressed in T-shirts and shorts, they’re disarmingly casual — a refreshing attitude in the uber-competitive, buttoned-down domain of string players. They speak efficiently and directly. They’re effective communicators.

Angela Bae jumps right in. The Seoul-born, Los Angeles-raised violinist started playing violin at 3. At 16, she became the youngest Concertmaster of the American Youth Symphony in L.A. “I think we have different musical identities as individuals and also just how we run things,” she says, and tells me everyone’s role and how it complements their personality.

She’s the ambitious planner, handling the logistics of travel and scheduling. Cellist Russell Houston is the storyteller; he manages their social media. Talk to him for one minute and you can pinpoint his charismatic voice in the quartet’s socials — upbeat, engaging and easygoing.

“He’s very relatable and he’s a funny guy,” Bae says. “I usually don’t tell him that, but he knows how to lighten up the mood and have fun.” The Texas native picked up the cello at 10 and holds degrees from the Colburn Conservatory, Northwestern University and Rice University.

Bae calls DeFilippis the speaker. “He’s a very elegant speaker who can do things on the fly like when we speak about our program,” she says. “He’s very good at this.” By the end of the interview, it’s clear from the way he speaks passionately about music and the meaningful community partnerships they’ve forged with students and young composers. The New Jersey-born violinist attended Juilliard’s pre-college program and holds a master’s from Rice University.

Benjamin Zannoni is the stabilizer, grounded and clear-eyed. The Texas-born violist has degrees from the Manhattan School of Music, Juilliard and Rice University. “He keeps us very organized when we live together, stuff like making sure no one’s doing a ‘sleep-all-day’ kind of thing,” Bae says, laughing good-naturedly. “Dividing up these roles is always fun because you can kind of slack off but then come back and everyone’s going to be there for you. It’s always a good balance. And then you can give 100 percent of what you’re good at to help other people. It’s a good feeling. You feel like you’re needed, and you’re also being helped.”

THE BALOURDET QUARTET

The quartet was founded in 2018 at Rice University in Houston under the tutelage of James Dunham, Norman Fischer and Cho-Liang Lin. It was named by Bae in homage to the beloved French chef at the Hotel St. Bernard in Taos, N.M., where she attended the Taos School of Music.

DeFilippis adds that the quartet began informally as four friends who were playing chamber music in school, partially for school credit, and has evolved over the last couple of years. “We kind of just did a festival together, then a competition together, and from there, the pandemic happened and we really had to confront who we were.

“We’ve been doing a lot of self-reflection as a group in the past year, and we never really asked ourselves these kinds of questions before, because we didn’t really have time to. It was very much like, there’s a concert you have to prepare for, you just rehearse it, you get it together, you share ideas and — boom, boom, boom — you get it cleaned up. But I think now we’re in a phase of playing the same music often enough that we really do confront our own identities every time we rehearse a passage of music.”

Zannoni believes their identities were shaped through exposure to different backgrounds and training in school. “We all basically studied in a bunch of different places and I think that, in a way, brought us all with different identities already. But they were kind of things that we had taken from other people. And now as a quartet, we’re actually becoming the individuals.”

The quartet was founded on democratic ideals. That influences everything, including the approach to the music they play. Their interpretive, creative passagework is developed through a process of recognizing and encouraging each other’s musical sensibilities. Subtilties such as shaping, inflection, phrasing, articulation and harmonic shifts are open to dialogue.

“A lot of times, musically,” Zannoni says, “it’s kind of this thing where we’ll work on things and each of us will talk and whatnot. But we all keep each other in check when someone’s really invested musically in something. Another person might be more invested in something technically, or someone might be invested in something super-emotional about the music. And it’s because we’re so democratic about everything. There’s so much equal voicing that goes into things, we kind of all get to put our little two cents in about things.”

One of the biggest assets of playing in a quartet is learning how to advocate for yourself. There is no sense of anonymity in such a small, intimate group and Bae finds it enriching.

“I think it’s also really fun,” she says. “Like if I’m thinking about a note and then somebody will be like, ‘Well, how does that fit in the whole phrase?’ and I’ll be like, ‘I don’t know, it just seems like that note deserves some love.’ And you know, both things are true — it’s just what you’re in the mood for. So then I’ll start thinking, ‘Well, how does that fit to the whole movement or the whole piece?’ and then I’ll think, ‘Wow, that’s a really broad question that I wasn’t even thinking about.’ So it’s really about keeping each other in check, and the democratic view of a phrase of a note, that keeps us constantly creative.”

The quartet looks ahead by championing new works. At the end of August, they will be in Alberta, Canada, for the Banff International String Quartet Competition, the largest quartet competition in North America. As one of the BISQC 2022 Competing Quartets, they are required to play two works (out of seven total) by living composers; one will be a new commission piece for the competition by Dinuk Wijeratne. Next year, they will premiere a new commission work by Karim Al-Zand, made possible through Chamber Music America’s Classical Commissioning Grant.

As we wrap up the interview, Houston flashes a big smile. “There are fun facts we want to tell you about Justin,” he says, and playfully nudges DeFilippis, who shares that he is a New Jersey native. He grew up in Hanover Township and his family still lives in the area. “My parents are super, super excited to have us perform less than 10 minutes from my house,” he says. He reminisces about childhood visits with his family to the Morris Museum, a highlight being the intricate Mega Model Train Gallery, part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The warmth in DeFilippis’ voice does not waver when he speaks about his family and his quartet mates, and one thing becomes very clear: the quartet isn’t just a collection of musicians. It’s a family.

“We’ve kind of formed this hive mind identity where home is wherever the four of us are,” he says. “We’re kind of each other’s siblings at this point.”

For more on the concert, visit morrismuseum.org.

For more on The Balourdet Quartet, visit balourdetquartet.com.

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