Artist Interview: Karen Ouzounian, cello

By Patrick Burke on April 30, 2016

The Aizuri Quartet, currently the Quartet in Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music, makes their PCMS debut on Wednesday, May 18. This sold-out performance features guest pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn performing the Philadelphia premiere of Anatoly Drozdov’s Piano Quintet in A Minor. I spoke with the Aizuri’s cellist, Karen Ouzounian (center left), about their upcoming performance, the group’s hectic performing schedule, and their love for new music.

Patrick Burke: For your upcoming PCMS performance you will be joined by pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn, a musician the ensemble is very close to. Could you tell us about the ensemble’s relationship with Ignat, and how did this project come together?

Karen Ouzounian: We are so much looking forward to performing two fantastic quintets with the phenomenal pianist Ignat Solzhenitsyn for our upcoming PCMS concert! This will be our first time collaborating with him as an ensemble, but the individual members of the Aizuri Quartet have had the pleasure of working with Ignat in various circumstances - playing chamber music at the Marlboro Music Festival, touring together through Curtis on Tour, as well as working together as members of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. This project arose through a collaboration between PCMS and the Curtis Institute of Music, where Ignat and the Aizuri Quartet have deep ties -  he as a faculty member, and the Aizuri Quartet as the String Quartet-in-Residence for the past two years. After dreaming up a few program ideas with Ignat, we all agreed that this program, with two Russian piano quintets paired with one of Haydn’s “Russian” String Quartets (Op. 33 No. 1 in B minor), was a keeper!

PB: You’ll be tackling two daunting piano quintets with the Shostakovich Op. 57 and the Philadelphia premiere of Anatoly Drozdov’s Piano Quintet in A Minor. Could you tell us about the Drozdov composition, and about the challenges in putting both these works together?

KO: Working on the Drozdov is a particular joy and challenge for us, since none of us have played the piece or heard it performed. It is unusual to give the Philadelphia premiere of a piece written before WWII but it is exciting to be able to approach an older piece from a fresh perspective. As with any new piece of music, we must work hard to digest the composer’s unique musical language. Both quintets have numerous shifts in character and clearly defined dramatic arcs, which we have to internalize and express fully in order to create a powerful musical narrative. These are also both intense and darkly Russian pieces that require a lot of energy and focus!

PB: This calendar year has been busy for the Quartet. You started off the year in Tennessee with the IRIS Orchestra and a residency in Hawaii, the month of March was filled with West Coast dates with clarinetist Michael Rusinek and Curtis on Tour, and now you’re in residence at Chamber Music Abu Dhabi. Could you reflect on this last year a bit, and what’s next for the Quartet?

KO: We love having such a diversity of musical experiences, immersing ourselves in different cultures, and sharing many an exotic meal together! Playing quintets with various collaborators, working with students, performing cool and crazy new works written for us (one of them featured an extensive melodica part for Ayane!), and learning standard repertoire keep us on our toes, expand our musical horizons, and force us to keep examining ourselves artistically. We particularly value the meaningful relationships we have developed both at home and abroad with collaborators, students, teachers and administrators over the past year.

We will be completing our residency at Curtis this month, and are looking forward to moving to New York City. Rounding out our term as the 2016-17 Ernst Stiefel String Quartet-in-Residence at Caramoor, we will be giving the world premiere of Paul Wiancko’s string quartet “Lift” at Caramoor on July 8th. As we dive into new repertoire next season, including works by Haydn, Bartok, Mozart and Kurtág, we are particularly excited about making our Kennedy Center debut, as well as our Canadian debut presented by the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto. Over the course of next year, we will also be working with composer Lembit Beecher on a new chamber opera (which will be premiered in Philadelphia in the Fall of 2017), that will feature the Aizuri Quartet, soprano Kiera Duffy, and a music-generating sculpture.

PB: The Quartet seems to gravitate toward new and genre-ambiguous works (I’m thinking specifically of your performance at World Café Live). What draws the Quartet to these types of projects, what is it like on a collaborative level working with composers/poets/dancers, and how rewarding is that final presentation?

KO: Through LiveConnections, we performed with both poet Denice Frohman and singer-songwriter Andrew Lipke at World Café Live. Much of this collaboration was full of surprises but we were so pleased and moved by the result that it made us eager to pursue more collaborative projects.

The four of us spend so much time rehearsing together, so working with other artists is something we look forward to. It is an opportunity for us to learn: collaborating with singers and wind players, we think more about breath; working with composers (such as Caroline Shaw and Jennifer Higdon) allows us the opportunity to get to know them as people and to ask them questions (the way we never can with Beethoven!); working with the poet Denice Frohman made us think about language in a different and powerful way.

We particularly value the way relationships grow over time. Through Curtis on Tour, for example, we had the opportunity to perform new commissions by Yevgeniy Sharlat and Gabriella Smith many times, allowing us to “own” these new works. It’s rewarding to develop this sort of deep connection to a composer’s music.

The Aizuri Quartet performs with Ignat Solzhenitsyn, piano on Wednesday, May 18 at the American Philosophical Society. For tickets and information, visit the concert page.

For more information on the Aizuri Quartet, visit their website.