The Julius Quartet, a chamber music ensemble formed in fall 2012 in New England, recently won the 2017 Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence at SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. The two-year fellowship, available to chamber music groups internationally, offers an annual stipend, support for a career-advancing project, participation in master classes and workshops with visiting artists, extensive performance opportunities in Dallas and more. It is coordinated by award-winning violinist Aaron Boyd, director of chamber music at SMU Meadows and a former member of the Escher String Quartet.

The Julius Quartet will be in residence at SMU through May 2019. Three of the members took time to talk to us about their personal experiences with chamber music in general as well as at SMU. 

What do you find so appealing about chamber music?

David Do, violinist: In my opinion, chamber music is an ideal way to perform and listen to classical music. While the massiveness and sonority of big orchestras is incredible to listen and be a part of, I find that a lot of the personality and individual character of the music is sacrificed in order to create a homogeneous unit in orchestral scores. However, chamber music provides the perfect balance of powerful ensemble playing and individual character that is so enjoyable to be a  part of.

Helen Lee, violinist: It is a great intimate way to communicate with other musicians through some of the most profound music ever written.

John Batchelder, violist: The reciprocity – the combination of the individual expressivity with a selfless willingness to contribute to a greater whole. Moreover, the intimate nature of the work process and performance experience make for especially memorable moments for audience members and performers.

What brought you to SMU?

David Do: When we were in our last year as the Graduate Quartet in Residence at Montclair State University, we were searching for a new place to develop our career as a quartet. We discovered not only that SMU offered their Peak Fellowship position to young quartets, but also that Aaron Boyd was going to be running the chamber music program and that the members of the Escher Quartet were frequent guests at the school, which made us feel compelled to audition for the spot. After auditioning, we were delighted to find out that we were the selected group, thus beginning our story here at SMU!

John Batchelder: We’re here for the continuation of our musical growth as an ensemble working with Aaron Boyd and the Escher Quartet, in addition to professional insight to help us build our ensemble’s profile and management. While we constantly work to craft our individual and group playing, we are also being mentored on how to face the challenges that young ensembles are facing today, and we’re being coached on how to build an individual quartet profile to market to potential series and venues. This combination is something that is rarely taught. These two things were extremely important in our decision for a residency program, and SMU has greatly exceeded our expectations so far!

What makes SMU a great place to be part of chamber music?

David Do: What I love most about SMU is its amazing atmosphere of learning. There is a wonderful feel to the students and faculty of SMU where it seems everyone can learn from each other. As a result, knowledge and experience are readily shared within our community, and as a group, we elevate each other. To me, this mindset is the complete and quintessential essence of chamber music, and I feel incredibly happy to be a part of it.

Helen Lee: It is a great environment with many opportunities to experience chamber music with world-renowned musicians. To me, that is that already creates a wonderful place to develop a useful and balanced skill set to enhance your career as a chamber musician.

John Batchelder: The seriousness and quality of the student groups is quite inspiring – many students that we have interacted with hold chamber music as their first love. Additionally, the number of performances by faculty members, as well as outside series that perform in the concert halls, make it a true center for chamber music events that are going on in the Dallas Metroplex.

What made you want to be part of the Julius Quartet?

David Do: I think what initially drew me to the quartet world was the repertoire. When I was an undergrad, there was a moment in my life where the single piece of music I listened to in my free time was the first movement of Beethoven’s op. 131 string quartet. As a younger man in my formative years, this piece made me revel in the quartet art form. It confounded and amazed me how four people of similar mind and skill could come together so beautifully, and the result was simply transcendent. I knew at that time that it would be a dream of mine to play in a quartet for a living, and a few years later, I found myself lucky enough to discover my colleagues in the Julius Quartet. I feel blessed to be able to work with colleagues who share my passion for the medium and additionally, a willingness to take this string quartet journey with me.

Helen Lee: Our great companionship toward each other.

John Batchelder: I believe that like-minded musicians who share the same values naturally attract each other… and that is exactly what happened with the Julius. We are four chamber music lovers who simply wanted to play quartets, have fun, and enjoy each other’s companionship in the process. We’ve lasted this far and are still loving it!

What has been your favorite performance or piece that you’ve done with the Julius Quartet?

David Do: It’s difficult to pinpoint one exhilarating performance that I can call my favorite, but I remember once performing Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, a piece that was previously not a personal favorite of mine. The setting was in a small space, and the audience was intimate, yet as we began to play the incredibly beautiful second movement, I felt increasing surges of color and inspiration from our sound. It felt like each note we played carried such sublime beauty and personality that I almost wanted to weep on stage. For me, that movement was the most positive emotion I had ever felt from a performance in my life and something I often think about today.

Helen Lee: A couple of years ago, we performed Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht in a brand new hall in upstate New York – a concert barn that was not completely finished. As it was the end of October, right before we went on stage it started to snow – some coming through the ceiling! I will not forget how cold it was, but also how special it was to have the setting totally capture the beautiful essence of that magical piece of music.

John Batchelder: It is truly hard to single out one performance, as all have memorable moments and special memories associated with them. However, our Carnegie Hall debut is an experience I will never forget. I remember the moment we walked on the stage of Weill Recital Hall and looked out to a sold-out audience. My first thought was, “My goodness, they must all be mistaken and showed up in the wrong hall!”

What have you learned from being part of this quartet?

David Do: One of many things I have learned from being in a quartet is a strong sense of empathetic responsibility. Before I joined the Julius Quartet, my drive to improve as a violinist and musician was purely for selfish reasons. I definitely felt a drive to be a better musician, but solely for the betterment of my own life and career. Nowadays, I feel that my growth and actions directly influence my colleagues in the quartet, and that I have an added responsibility to the group in addition to myself. In turn, this has also taught me to become a more empathetic person outside of the group, and made me more susceptible to others’ feelings.

Helen Lee: There are many things that I have learned while working in the quartet, but the of the most prevalent for me has been patience.

John Batchelder: Selflessness. To truly succeed as a genuine group trying to serve the music you have to leave your ego at the door. While we should never sacrifice our individual voice and expression, it is important to understand that playing in a quartet means working to create something bigger than ourselves. More times than not, that means getting out of our own way to better the communal voice of the ensemble.

Do you have any advice for prospective music students who want to be involved with chamber music or want to join a group like the Julius Quartet?

David Do: I think the best piece of advice I could give to someone pursuing a career in a chamber music ensemble is to be humble, and always look to improve yourself and your ensemble. One of the things that can happen to a group that has to work together constantly is that criticism and disagreements between you and your colleagues can lead to disastrous results in the group. The most productive and enjoyable way to work together in an ensemble is to put pride aside and try to understand your colleagues. Everyone is different and unique: We hear music in different ways, and just because your colleague hears something differently than you do doesn’t mean it’s wrong, it’s just a variation of the music you are playing. It also doesn’t mean that you have to completely surrender your opinions as a musician, but having another perspective to music will only add to your growth, it won’t take anything away.

Helen Lee: I think having fun is the most important part – it is the reason why we are doing this in the first place! Furthermore, I would encourage students to always keep a curious mind for music and a hunger for exploration.

John Batchelder:
1. Always love what you do, otherwise what is the point? While rehearsals may get tense or tiresome, remember that working in a chamber music setting means exploring some of the best music ever created on a daily basis… that is not too bad!
2. Respect your colleagues and their musicianship. Everyone brings a different perspective to the table, and just because it does not always align with yours does not necessarily mean that it is wrong. Fresh ideas from a colleague can open up many doors in one’s own personal playing, and that is quite exciting.

The Julius Quartet will be performing across the country this spring and summer, and will give two concerts at Meadows in the 2018-19 school year. Visit their calendar for a list of upcoming performances!

Read more about the Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence and the Julius Quartet.