The Cecilia String Quartet Perform at the Brockville Arts Centre

When I purchased tickets to see the Cecilia String Quartet in Brockville, I had no idea that the group originally hails from right here in Toronto. Composed of four talented young ladies, Caitlin Boyle (viola), Rachel Desoer (cello), Min-Jeong Koh (violin), and Sarah Nematallah (violin), the group formed while all were students studying at the University of Toronto. The quartet quickly began competing in competitions all over the country, where they were lauded for their creativity, expressiveness, and maturity, and they have won many notable awards including the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) in 2010. The group now tours all throughout Canada, the United States, and Europe, and are the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music.

The Cecilia String Quartet is just as focused on teaching and educational initiatives as they are international performances and competitions. They have taught all throughout North America; venues include McGill University, Wilfred Laurier University, and the local Glenn Gould School at the Royal Conservatory of Music, as well as a school for homeless young people in San Diego. They have also spent time developing learning initiatives such as Breathing Life into Music, a residency in France teaching musical skills.

Cecilia String Quartet

Instead of being forced to travel internationally to catch this quartet, I was fortunate enough to have them come right to me, performing to an enthusiastic crowd at the local Brockville Arts Centre. Opening for the quartet was nine-year-old piano prodigy and Canadian Music Competition winner Leonid Nediak. This talented young man performed three pieces from Rachmaninoff with astonishing skill. His ability to mix confident strength with delicate gentleness to convey these dreamy pieces begs the question of how one so young could have the intuition required to achieve this difficult balance. It is always a thrill to watch young performers share their skills, and I am confident that in years to come, I will be able to brag that I saw the great Nediak perform when he was just starting his pianist career.

The evening’s main event, The Cecilia Quartet, continued the theme of youth, as one was immediately struck by how young these ladies appear. Thoughts of age were immediately forgotten, however, once one heard the strikingly mature sounds the quartet was able to produce. Haydn’s String Quartet in D Major, known for its conversational quality and recognizable melodies, opened the set. The interplay between the four instruments was highlighted, as the ladies bounced sonic ideas off of one another and the melodies jumped from one instrument to another. Often, the notes melded together to sound as if they were produced by one instrument as opposed to four. Although each performer appeared to be so caught up in their music that they existed in their own world, the music created sounded as if it came of one singular will. The Haydn piece was by turns delicate and lovely and lively and energetic, and all of these nuances were beautifully portrayed. This evening, the quartet definitely produced a performance that did justice to a wonderful piece penned by the so-called “Father of the String Quartet”.

Cecilia String Quartet

Tradition was followed by modernism as the quartet moved on to Walking Away From…, a piece written by Canadian composer Katarina Curcin in 2005. Curcin uses folksong and waltz motifs mixed with new age techniques to tell the story of her move from her homeland of Serbia to the country that she now calls home, Canada. This technically difficult work abandons form and structure in order to tell its tale and convey its emotion. It was fascinating to hear the members of the quartet speak of the creative freedom they were allowed by Curcin’s work. Instead of providing instruction for every note and dynamic, Curcin encourages performers of her pieces to make their own decisions regarding aspects of the music such as tempo and rhythm. Although the stunning instruments that performed the piece dated all the way back to 1767, this work was decidedly modern and featured a new and unique style.

Finally, the quartet concluded their set with Tchaikovsky’s renowned String Quartet in D Major, a composition that is rumoured to have brought the Russian author Leo Tolstoy to tears at its premier in 1871. As legend has it, Tolstoy claimed that this work was “the most beautiful piece of music [he] ever heard,” and it is easy to agree as one listens to a talented group such as The Cecilia Quartet perform it. This romantic and emotional piece often mimics the composer’s characteristic ballet music motifs, and the result is a work that requires both an aggressive attack and a gentle sensitivity. The performers were more than up to this challenge, producing a memorable presentation where all individuals received the opportunity to be featured.

It is astonishing that four individuals can be so in tune with one another that they are able to create such a perfectly balanced and full sound. The passion that these ladies feel for their music is evident in the way that they perform: with energy, emotion, and astonishing skill. The music of The Cecilia Quartet will resound in the mind long after the final notes have been played, and I highly recommend that if the opportunity to see this quartet perform arises, one does not pass it up!

Cecilia String Quartet

Photo Credits: Cecilia String Quartet – photos from a past performance.