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Renowned Ensō String Quartet to open the 35th Chamber Music Festival

By Fredric Dannen

On a recent afternoon in an apartment in New York City, the four members of the Ensō String Quartet were rehearsing the first work to be performed on the first evening of this year’s San Miguel Chamber Music Festival – Mozart’s so-called Dissonance Quartet, K. 465 – when they paused for what cellist Richard Belcher politely termed “a healthy discussion” over the length of time a particular eighth note should be held. The Ensō’s members are bound together not only by talent but also by a genuine camaraderie; yet they do not always agree. Belcher believed Mozart intended the quaver to be played long, while Melissa Reardon, the violist, thought it should be played short. In the democratic manner of conductor-free chamber ensembles, the matter went to a vote. The decision was a short eighth note.

Ensō String Quartet
Bartok, Mozart, Grieg
Boccherini, Janácek, Beethoven
Chamber Music Festival
Fri & Sat, Jul 26 & 27, 7pm
Teatro Ángela Peralta
150 pesos

So nice a detail may be lost on even the most discerning concertgoer; but those fortunate enough to get a ticket to either of the Ensō’s concerts on July 26 and 27 will hear what underlies that attention to nuance – a passion for excellence. Founded at Yale University in 1999, the Ensō has, in a decade and a half, risen to the front rank of string ensembles. The group, which is making its San Miguel debut, has won a sheaf of international awards, and has a busy touring and recording schedule. The Washington Post described a recent performance by the Ensō as “glorious;” and in appraising one of the Ensō’s recordings, the British reviewer Nick Barnard appeared to run out of superlatives, declaring, “the performances here by the Ensō Quartet from America are quite staggeringly brilliant. I don’t think I have been so thrilled by the sound of a string quartet in a long time…. If I could give this disc a standing ovation of one…I would!”
The best string ensembles are characterized by a particular sound, usually established by the first violinist, and the Ensō is no exception. First violinist Maureen Nelson, a native of Pennsylvania, is a two-time winner of the Greenfield Competition, and has twice performed as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Maureen’s sound has a great visceral, raw quality,” says Belcher, “and she’s a very intuitive musician. I would like to think that works its way through the whole quartet.”
Belcher, a New Zealander, met Nelson at Yale in 1998. His cello teacher in New Zealand had referred him to an instructor on the Yale faculty and, as Belcher recalls, on his arrival in the US, “I got off the plane and was immediately put in a quartet with Maureen.” The

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