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Artist Interview: Marinus Ensemble

By Erik Petersons on January 30, 2019

For nearly ten years, the Marinus Ensemble has delivered creative musical projects that draw on the best emerging performers at home and abroad.

At the heart of this current collaboration between six artists—Sarah Shafer, soprano; Francesca dePasquale & Elizabeth Fayette, violins; Rachel Kuipers Yonan, viola; Matthew Zalkind, cello; Young-Ah Tak, piano—is a program that explores the concept of nationalism through the music of Turina, Rota, Chausson, and Shostakovich. We caught up with Rachel to discuss how each composer used their music to express pride for their homeland.

Erik Petersons: Your concert with PCMS on February 24 is focused on the topic of nationalism. Can you tell us how this program came together and why you chose each composer? What insights have you gained from rehearsing these works?

Rachel Kuipers Yonan: The past several years have felt politically turbulent with "nationalism" being a key and controversial word. In light of this, I thought it would be interesting to explore this concept in music, particularly 20th century chamber music. Primarily, I wanted to explore how a composer used music to preserve and share the essence of his nation's musical culture.

The Spanish composer Joaquín Turina is fascinating. He studied in Paris under French composer and teacher Vincent d'Indy and ran in the circles of prominent Symbolist poets and Impressionist French composers. And yet, he made a clear decision to return to his homeland, and to immerse himself in Spanish folk music. Focusing on the Moorish influence in his native Andalusia in Southern Spain, he melds these sounds with the traditional classical form and French harmonic style that he acquired while studying in Paris.

Turina and Ernest Chausson were in the same circles in Paris (although at different times). The young Turina returned to his homeland to lead a movement promoting Spanish music. But Chausson composed distinctively French music, integrating impressionist sound painting and Symbolist poetry in Chanson Perpetuelle, which he notes in the title, is to be played in the style of a folk song.

In some ways, the natural desire that Turina felt to showcase sounds of his homeland is exactly opposite of the pressure exerted upon Dmitri Shostakovich by the Soviet regime which obliged him to do so with the threat of blacklisting, the Gulag, or worse. Under Joseph Stalin, composers including Shostakovich were mandated to compose in the traditional style, steering clear of anything avant-garde, and to incorporate components that would be familiar and accessible to the populace. Just four years before the composition of the Piano Quintet in G Minor, Shostakovich had been denounced by the party for his opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. Living in constant fear of the Soviets, Shostakovich composed works overtly in conformity with the regime's demands of lyricism and classical structure, yet still embedded his own distinctive character in the sound. We hear this in the Quintet. While it adheres to classical form, it is still imbued with sounds of intense struggle and inner pain. Even his superficially happy dances carry a flavor of the macabre.

That's a lot of history, but it makes the music so much more interesting to study!

EP: It’s rare to hear a work for soprano and quartet…or piano quartet for that matter. How does the addition of language to a work affect the way you approach and interpret the music as an instrumentalist?

RY: I love finding lesser-known works and presenting them, so I’m delighted to highlight the Chausson and the Rota on this concert. It's absolutely true that adding a voice and language brings definition to the meaning of a piece. As instrumentalists, so much can be left to the imagination, the will of the performer, or the listener. What I love about the combination of word and music is the clarity it gives us. In the Chausson, the instruments paint a particular sound. As the voice says "J'en eus un grand frémissement" (talking about the trembling that her lover causes in her), the strings tremolo with sforzandi that diminuendo and become tender as the singer realizes that she has become his lover. It's delicate and poignant.

Rota does something very similar as he paints the words "Dormi cuor di mamma!" (Go to sleep mother's sweetheart!). He provides a new and urgent rocking gesture in the strings; what you might expect from a mother desperate to get her cold and hungry son to sleep.

EP: What is the history of the Marinus Ensemble and what mission connects the roster of artists together?

RY: I'd describe Marinus as a collection of the best young musicians who have a desire to share their art in an accessible way. We draw on today's emerging international performers to celebrate the power of our great chamber repertoire. At the heart of Marinus is a commitment to enliven the audience experience through a distinctive concert approach, giving performances that are both searching and authentic. Most importantly, our artists share a vision of making great music come alive for diverse audiences!

EP: The Friday before your concert, you will be holding a master class for students in the city. Describe the master class experience and what you hope students will take away from the experience.

RY: The masterclass setting is unique in that it gives students an opportunity to both perform in front of an audience and also to be taught in front of an audience. From my experience, this really heightens the educational experience, as the students hear and respond to new ideas on the spot! We hope that students will leave our class with new musical and technical insights, and also a greater joy in the process of creating music.  A key part of the Marinus mission is to bring a deeper understanding of classical music to those who do not always have access, so we are particularly excited about this opportunity!

The Marinus Ensemble performs on Sunday, February 24, at 3:00 pm at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. For tickets and information, visit the concert page. For more information about the Marinus Ensemble, visit their website.