The Escher String Quartet (front) with WNYC president Laura Walker and Soundcheck host John Schaefer (rear, L-R) after their inaugural live session in WNYC's new performance studio.
The Escher String Quartet (front) with WNYC president Laura Walker and Soundcheck host John Schaefer (rear, L-R) after their inaugural live session in WNYC's new performance studio. Irene Trudel
After studying together at the Manhattan School of Music, the Escher String Quartet formed in 2005.
WNYC moved into new studios this month, after 84 years spent broadcasting from the Municipal Building in lower Manhattan. Not only does this mean more breathing room for staff and guests — with 40 percent more floor space and twice the number of recording studios and booths — but it also means the addition of a new, up-to-date performance studio. So after weeks of test runs and fine-tuning, Soundcheck christened the space on air when the up-and-coming Escher String Quartet stopped by to perform a couple of pieces.
The group kicked off the session with a live performance of the finale from Dvorak's "American" String Quartet, a staple of the chamber-music repertoire that sounded fresh in this young group's hands. Unlike many string quartets, whose names seem chosen at random, Escher String Quartet has a musical basis for its moniker: The group was inspired by M.C. Escher, the 20th-century Dutch artist known for intricate, mesmerizing drawings that have become a staple of college dorm rooms everywhere.
"Escher did a lot of drawings, but the ones we were thinking about were the ones with lots of birds or fish," says Adam Barnett-Hart, the group's affable first violinist. "It's the interplay between all of the pieces that form his work of art. That's more or less how it is in a string quartet, as well. You take an individual part, and there's not much to it. It's about the way the composition comes together."
The Escher Quartet is just three years old, but it's already gaining some high-profile recognition. This summer, the quartet was in residence at the Caramoor Festival in Katonah, N.Y., and this fall it begins the second year of a residency at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Beyond the chamber circuit, the group has also appeared in nightclubs and with pop and jazz singers such as Luke Temple and Kurt Elling.
"We're still trying to figure out how much of that we want to do," Barnett-Hartt tells host John Schaefer about the alternative venues. He adds that the quartet was surprised to find that, while conventional audiences may bristle at modern repertoire, non-traditional audiences respond enthusiastically to Bartok or Zemlinsky. "We do some outreach for children in preschool and elementary school, and the thing we've found is by far the most successful is also modern music. The more modern you get, the more they can understand that somehow."
Today, the Escher also gave the first public performance of the first movement of Pierre Jalbert's Quartet No. 4 — a work that cellist Andrew Janss calls "very rhythmic and all about extremes."
The performance sounded crisp, clear, and well-blended from inside the control room. Every sharp edge and hairpin turn was nicely enunciated. The Escher String Quartet's performance not only showed off its sound, but also whetted appetites for more performances in WNYC's new digs.
Originally recorded July 9, 2008.
Listen to the previous Favorite Session, or see our full archive.