String quartet opens the world to chamber music

Penderecki String Quartet share their passion for chamber and contemporary music with the North Okanagan Community Concert Association.

Penderecki String Quartet members Jeremy Bell

Penderecki String Quartet members Jeremy Bell

She’d cradled a violin for most of her young life, but at 19, Christine Vlajk traded the spotlight of what is traditionally a solo instrument to play its more mellow and larger counterpart in an ensemble.

Now a member of the world renowned Penderecki String Quartet, Vlajk is a celebrated violist who not only plies her trade on international concert stages, she spreads her love of the viola to up-and-coming musicians through master classes, festivals, and the like.

Vlajk says she “saw the light” when she started playing in an ensemble with three other women violinists in the U.S. (She is originally from Denver, Colo.)

“They needed a violist, and being a violinist at the time, my ego had to go through a transformation,” said Vlajk. “I was certainly drawn to the viola. There’s something about the sonority (of lower-octave instruments.) You feel the sounds in your body, particularly your heart and gut that resonates with the nature and bridge between the high and low sound.”

To say the viola has served Vlajk well is an understatement.

In New York State this weekend for what she calls a “viola geek” get together at Suny Fredonia University, Vlajk travels to B.C. with Penderecki to play the next concert in the North Okanagan Community Concert season, Wednesday.

Her initial meeting with Penderecki’s original members came around the same time she graduated with her masters in viola at the University of Wisconsin. Then the violist of the Montclaire String Quartet, she met the three male Polish musicians who had named their group after famed Polish conductor/composer, Krystof Penderecki.

Vlajk later met up with the players, including violinist Jerzy Kaplanek, the only original member who is still in the quartet, while in Banff to compete with Montclaire in a string quartet competition.

“They heard me in that context and said they needed a viola player,” she said.

Since originally forming 25 years ago in Katowice, Poland, Penderecki has made strides in the chamber world, often playing the music of Eastern European composers, Polish and otherwise, up to the likes of Frank Zappa.

For Vlajk, who joined Penderecki 14 years ago, playing the music by composers of her ancestral home of Hungary has been especially poignant. It was her father, a musician, who got her interested in chamber music as a young child, and she and the quartet have since recorded and performed all of Béla Bartók’s string quartets, as well as works by Kodály, Kurtág, and Canadian-Hungarian Istvan Anhalt.

“My parents are from Hungary and they escaped during the revolution in 1956, so I am proud about being Hungarian, and have been back there as a civilian and also as a musician,” said Vlajk.

In addition to international travel, the opportunity to perform with the already established group came with an artist residency at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont. (Penderecki has been the university’s artist-in-residence at the school for the past 20 years.)

Vlajk continues to work at Laurier as a full-time professor of viola, strings and chamber music, along with performing full-time with Penderecki, so time, especially for herself, is precious.

“We spend so much time together, but we don’t tend to socialize with each other. We do respect and like each other a lot,” she said. “We’re usually up at 5:30 a.m. to schlep ourselves and our instruments to the airport, then its 16 hours on a plane, and on the same day we’re going to a hall to play a concert. There’s also a lot of rehearsal time together, and it’s important to also have space.”

Besides Kaplanek, the quartet now also consists of Toronto-born violinist Jeremy Bell and newest member, Massachusetts-born cellist Jacob Braun, who has a special interest in contemporary and multi-media electronic music.

“Our mandate is to give a voice to contemporary music. If we don’t play it, then nobody hears it,” said Vlajk. “It’s a misperception that contemporary music is unlistenable. You have to keep an open mind as you might get blown away. If you don’t give it that first listen, you will never know whether it appeals or not.”

In that vein, Penderecki also has a mandate to give voice to contemporary composers and often visits university music departments, whose students will write quartets for the group to perform.

Penderecki also gives back to young artists by hosting QuartetFest at Wilfrid Laurier, where international string quartets come to perform, and young chamber ensembles study with the members of the Penderecki and other faculty.

One of the pieces the quartet will play in Vernon is De Profundis for String Quartet, written by young Polish-born composer Norbert Palej, who is an assistant professor of composition at the University of Toronto.

“It’s a 20-minute piece in one movement and is like one fell swoop,” said Vlajk.

They will reach back even further to perform works by Beethoven (String Quartet in G Major, Op.18, No.2) as well as Debussy (String Quartet in G minor, Op.10), which was composed in 1893.

The Penderecki String Quartet gives two concerts Wednesday, Feb. 22 at 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. at the Vernon Performing Arts Centre. Individual tickets are available for $35, $17.50 for students, at the Ticket Seller, 549-7469, www.ticketseller.ca.