Danish String Quartet Returns in ‘Schubert-ian and More’ Mode
World-Renowned Danish String Quartet Returns to UCSB’s Campbell Hall, with U.S. Premiere of Work by Icelandic Composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir
When first we caught sound of the young-ish and mighty Danish String Quartet’s (DSQ) current Doppelgänger project in Santa Barbara in October 2021, the place and time contributed to the sense of significance in the air. The group, which has thankfully been a regular visitor in town for nearly a decade, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures (A&L), was in town to kick off its current and continuing Doppelgänger project in the idyllic rustic yet elegant ambience of Rockwood. As one of the earliest live and in-person concerts after the pandemic’s smackdown on live music, the evening enjoyed an extra-special resonance.
At that concert, the DSQ — which has become a premiere string quartet on the world stage, with many powerful albums out on the ECM label — was launching Doppelgänger, in which Schubert’s music is auspiciously and conscientiously blended with newly commissioned pieces by contemporary composers. The living, breathing composer that night was renowned and distinctive Danish composer Bent Sørensen, whose Doppelgänger made a strong impact, with its deftly woven musical fabric with patches of Schubert in the folds.
On April 13 at Campbell Hall, the DSQ returns for the third installment in the ultimately four-part Doppelgänger series, this time with a composer whose star has risen considerably just within the past six months. Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir was a key element of the controversial and masterful classical music-steeped Todd Field film Tár, in which her music is the basis of a lengthy classroom dissection and takedown by Cate Blanchett’s power-mad conductor character. In January, Thorvaldsdottir’s environmental-themed CATAMORPHOSIS was premiered by the New York Philharmonic.
Her new DSQ-commissioned piece, Rituals, will have its U.S. premiere at Campbell Hall, before moving on to other stops in America, culminating in Carnegie Hall. Encircling her premiere are three pieces by Schubert, the “Rosamunde” and “Quartettsatz” quartets, and the DSQ-arrangement of “Gretchen am Spinnrade,” from Schubert’s lieder library.
Creatively blending rich musical history with present-tense creation has been a feature in the life of the DSQ — composed of violinists Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, violist Asbjørn Nørgaard and cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin — now celebrating its twentieth anniversary. They recently completed their Prism series, combining the foundation of Beethoven’s quartets with new works — and also heard in live-in-the-805 performances.
We recently checked in with Nørgaard for an update.
Has Santa Barbara become something of an important piece of the story for you over the nearly decade-long relationship? Yes. We tour a lot, and it is a fun but also somewhat hard life, as we all have kids and families back home. Sometimes we dream of cloning a quartet, so we can be two places at once. But when we tour, it feels very good to be able to return to places. When you are returning to a place, it starts to feel more like a home. Arts & Lectures in Santa Barbara was one of the first promoters who took a chance and invited a very young Danish quartet a decade ago, and since then we have been returning many times.
We know and love the people in Santa Barbara. We know the city, the area. It almost feels like a tiny piece of Denmark to us, even if it is quite far and different in many ways. To put on a concert is really a team work. It takes musicians, but it also takes production and an audience. We are ourselves concert organizers in Denmark, and we have realized that concert production on many levels is where most of the creative work is happening. And for us to be able to work together with the creative people in Arts & Lectures on a long-term basis is just wonderful.
You also appeared locally, via streaming proxy, during the COVID lockdown, which was a blast of inspiration. I know we’re all wanting to put the pandemic behind us at this point, but can you touch on how the pandemic affected the group’s life, and has it been particularly liberating to get back to life as usual? The pandemic was a crazy event in everyone’s lives; 2020 was planned as the big international Beethoven celebration year, so we had lots of stuff canceled, especially in the U.S. However, I think we were somewhat less affected than many of our colleagues, especially in the U.S.A. I have the perception that Denmark and Europe in general remained more open than the U.S. Our kids were back in school and kindergarten after one month, and with some restrictions the chamber music concert scene came back to life quite fast.
But it was a bumpy time for a touring quartet, for sure. On the plus side, we started to teach more at the Academy of Music in Copenhagen and we all have small kids, so we didn’t mind much to have a drop in our transatlantic touring activity for a while.
And now the upcoming concert features the U.S. premiere of Rituals, by the fascinating composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir — suddenly very much in the limelight, not only in classical circles, the New York Phil and elsewhere, but as an unusually public presence in the film Tár. What can you tell us about working with her, this new piece, and how it connects to the Schubertian theme? Anna is one of today’s most popular composers, and as you mention, she even had somewhat of a mainstream breakthrough, something that is very hard to achieve as a classical composer. She is a cellist, so it has been very easy to work with her. She knows exactly how to write for strings, and she has a very clear voice and idea of what she wants. Her writing is extremely efficient for what she wants to achieve, something that musicians always love in composers.
Her piece is only connected to Schubert on a very metaphysical level. She has called it Rituals. It can maybe be seen as a travel through different types of rituals. Or maybe as an entire ritual in itself. A ritual is an action that is repeated. It can be a “good” ritual, like making a coffee the same way each morning. But rituals can also be dark and unhealthy. Maybe some religious rituals are on the darker end of the spectrum. Anxiety and OCD could also be considered unhealthy rituals. In Anna’s piece, one can feel the repetition all over. Some of the rituals and repetitions have a dark, unhealthy character. Others are good, comfortable rituals.
I feel there is a connection to Schubert’s “Rosamunde” quartet that Anna’s piece is paired with. In “Rosamunde,” there are as many repetitions as in Anna’s piece. It is probably one of the more repetitive pieces in the entire quartet repertoire. It almost finds its expressive power in all these repetitions and where this brings the musicians and the audience in a performance.
I’m just re-listening to your latest — and last? — edition of the Prism project, with Beethoven paired with Webern and Bach. It’s an interesting trend in your extended projects, to find resonances, old and new, between particular composers in the standard canon — Beethoven and now Schubert. Is that desire to find connections between musical eras and certain composers an interest that you think will continue through your quartet work? We are always looking for ways to recontextualize the old pieces. Of course, this is somewhat in demand by audiences, but honestly, we ourselves find it a bit boring to just keep programming chamber music albums and concerts in the same way year after year. So yes, we will definitely keep trying to connect eras, composers, different media, etc. in the years to come. And yes, Prism V is the last Prism album.
Thinking of Santa Barbara’s Rockwood venue — you brought a program of folk music there, before performing a separate classical program at UCSB. Do you still have a strong connection to Danish and Scandinavian folk music, and is that musical world something that gives you a centering cultural identity, not to mention a folk-flavored fun factor? We actually just recorded a new album with folk music. It will be released later this year. Our folk music arm is not something we created on purpose. We grew up with this music, and it felt natural for us to bring it also to classical concert stages. So, the fact that we are playing folk music in our string quartet doesn’t give us a cultural identity, it is our identity.
The most important thing when you walk on stage is that what you are presenting to the audience is authentic. This applies to classical music: We can only perform classical pieces convincingly if we like them. Which is why we avoid composers that don’t speak to us. We are not just machines that can play anything. The same goes for folk music. We only feel at home in the northern European tradition that we grew up with. It would be very weird if we suddenly started to play tango music — and we would have no clue how to actually play this music.
I was surprised to realize that you are celebrating your twentieth anniversary. I think of the group as a young operation, but I guess years do add up. In an anniversary moment like this, do you reflect back on the group’s adventure so far, and compare your early ambitions with how things have turned out? We started out very early, and that has been a blessing. It has certainly made many things easier for us, that our musical taste was formed together. And it has made things easier that we have always had the quartet as our first priority. When people form ensembles later, it can be harder to keep the troops together, so to speak.
As we started out, we didn’t have too many ambitions. We honestly just wanted to spend time together and the quartet was a perfect way to do this. We would never have dreamed of the life we are able to live today and we know that we have been lucky and blessed over and over again. Looking back at a career trajectory, one realizes that life is a sequence of pretty random situations that are very hard to predict, to force or control.
What’s on the horizon for the group? Any particular plans, beyond the Doppelgänger project? We have several plans for the years to come, some of these are secret yet! On more practical terms, we just hope to be able to balance everything. Now we are all fathers and that certainly changes one’s perspective on time, touring and priorities.
The Danish String Quartet performs at 7 p.m. on April 13 at UCSB Campbell Hall. See artsandlectures.ucsb.edu.