Artist Interview: Nelson Lee, Jupiter Quartet

By Patrick Burke on December 31, 2013

Formed in 2001, the Jupiter Quartet is one of today's most active sting quartets. Coupled with extensive tours both state-side and abroad,  the Quartet places a strong emphasis on education. They currently serve on the faculty of the University of Illinois; hold visiting faculty residencies at Oberlin Conservatory and Adelphi University; and work heavily within the public school systems. Just before our holiday break, I spoke with first violinist Nelson Lee (far right) about the Quartet's January 15th PCMS concert, their connection with that Jasper Quartet and the group's recent recording projects.

Patrick Burke:  For your PCMS performance, you'll be pairing up with the Jasper Quartet. The two quartets share a very close connection. Could you tell our audience what the relationship is between the two ensembles?

Nelson Lee:  When the Jupiter and Jasper get together, it is definitely a family affair. Let me attempt to summarize the connections:  J Freivogel, the first violinist of the Jasper, is the younger brother of Meg and Liz Freivogel ,who comprise the inner voices of the Jupiter. In addition, J is married to the cellist of the Jasper, Rachel Henderson, and Meg is married to the cellist of the Jupiter, Daniel McDonough. As you can see, there are familial connections all around when we get together. We also happen to all be great friends and colleagues so we have a lot of fun every time we collaborate.

PB:  You’ll be tackling two monuments in the string octet world in the Shostakovich and the Mendelssohn. Could you talk about the challenges in putting together these works and their importance in the literature?

NL:  Any time you put eight players in a room, it is a challenge to put a piece of music together. There is constant dialogue and discussion about every aspect of the music with the goal of finding a unified vision that all eight people really believe in. This collaborative process and spirit is what we enjoy so much about playing chamber music.

The Mendelssohn and Shostakovich are certainly two of the monuments in the octet repertoire. They both find a brilliant balance between the intimacy of chamber music and the power and breadth of a larger ensemble.

PB:  The eight of you will also present a new work by Dan Visconti, Eternal Breath. Could you talk about the work, your relationship with Dan Visconti, and how both Quartets came to this commission?

NL:  Eternal Breath has a nice backstory. It was commissioned by Bill and Margaret Freivogel (parents and parents-in-law of FIVE members of the Jupiter/Jasper Quartets) for their fortieth wedding anniversary. Amongst their four children and their respective spouses, there are seven musicians and a Spanish teacher (Liz's husband Gabe).  So Dan Visconti wrote a piece to match this formation, hence the octet for seven strings and shruti box. The shruti box is a small wooden instrument that provides long drone tones, typically in Indian classical music. Gabe happily assumed the role as the shruti box player for the premiere, which took place at the Freivogel house a couple years ago.

Just a quick word about the music:  the piece reflects the joyful chaos of living in a big family. As the title suggests, it proceeds in a big arc consisting of a long, gradual crescendo that eventually peaks and gives way to a peaceful release.

PB:  The Jupiter just released a recording of chamber music by Ravel. For this project you teamed up with several members of the Oberlin Conservatory faculty. Could you describe the process of recording these works as well as your role as Quartet-in-Residence at Oberlin?

NL:  We really enjoyed being a part of this project. We were first contacted about the recording by Yolanda Kondonassis, the harp professor at Oberlin and renowned soloist. We have performed the Ravel quartet quite a bit so we leapt at the opportunity to be part of an all-Ravel disc that also included the Introduction and Allegro for harp, flute, clarinet, and string quartet, and other selections. We were also able to record in Oberlin's fantastic brand-new recording facility. As Quartet-in Residence at Oberlin for the past two years, we have really enjoyed working with their wonderfully creative and talented students. The residency has primarily involved chamber music coaching with some occasional private lessons and performances.

PB:  Speaking of recordings, this November the Quartet performed its first of six concerts at MIT in which you will perform the complete cycle of Beethoven string quartets. Your 2009 recording featured Op. 135, but can we look forward to hearing more Beethoven in the coming years?

NL:  That is a great question. We don't have any specific plans to record any more Beethoven at the moment, but it is certainly something we would love to do in the near future. We feel so lucky to have the opportunity to perform the cycle at MIT over the next couple years. Hopefully our relationship with Beethoven's quartets will be a life-long affair that will include some more recordings very soon!

PB:  Also, on a personal note, I have heard you come from a very musical family. Would you mind sharing with our audience some of your musical upbringing?

NL:  I do indeed. In fact, everyone in my immediate family and my wife's immediate family is a musician. I can't escape! Both of my parents are pianists, and my father also conducts. They started me on piano and violin, but it quickly became apparent that I should focus on the latter. This made it easier for me to collaborate with them as well. I have twin sisters who are also both musicians. Andrea plays the cello, and Alicia plays the clarinet. We also try to find as many opportunities as we can to play together. Finally, my wife is a cellist who also comes from a family of musicians. One amazing coincidence is that my father and her mother were in the same piano repertoire class at Juilliard. Just goes to show how small the music world is!

The Jupiter Quartet  appears along with the Jasper Quartet on Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. For tickets and information visit the concert page.

For more information on the Jupiter Quartet, please visit their website.

For more information on the Jasper Quartet, please visit their website.