Smile Politely

Getting to know the Aizuri Quartet

Four women are pictured with their string instruments. The background is a neutral brown and beige.
Aizuri Quartet

This weekend at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts you can experience a performance from the Aizuri Quartet, a string quartet of four amazing women: Emma Frucht and Miho Saegusa on violin; Ayane Kozasa on viola; and Karen Ouzounian on cello. They will be performing their show The Art of Translation, a collection of both new works and works by Franz Schubert. The Aizuri Quartet has won numerous awards, including the 2022 Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America. They’ve been in residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and nominated for a Grammy, and yet somehow have had time to not only make new music, but also create an entire educational kids web series (that has two seasons). It’s impressive. 

I connected with the quartet via email to get a sense of who they are and what sort of experience you might have when you see them perform on Sunday, February 19th. Tickets are available on the KCPA website. In the meantime, read our interview below. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Smile Politely: How did you four come together?

Karen Ouzounian: The idea of starting a string quartet was born after Miho, Ayane, and I spent a summer studying chamber music together at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Music Institute. It’s an incredible (and very intense!) program, and we left feeling inspired to start our own group. The quartet officially formed in 2012, and really coalesced and gained momentum during our time in residence at the Curtis Institute of Music from 2014 to 2016. The quartet is based in NYC, and Emma, a wonderful violinist and chamber musician (and native New Yorker!), joined the band in 2019. 

SP: One thing I’ve noticed is the physicality of your play. Can you describe the embodied experience of playing an instrument in the way you do? 

Emma Frucht: One thing we’re constantly thinking about when playing our instruments is how to make them feel like an organic extension of our bodies. From a technical standpoint, we want to feel flexible and relaxed, especially when performing — imagining our bows as an extension of our right arm helps us achieve this. One of our main philosophies when making music is to try to sing through our instruments. We imagine that our instruments are not only an extension of our physical body, but also of our voice. In our rehearsals, we talk about how we might sing phrases together, and how to shape music in a way that’s vocally informed. This helps us unify our musical ideas, and allows us to create deeply personal interpretations of the pieces we perform. 

SP: What is most surprising about being in person again after a virtual season?

Ouzounian: Oh it’s such an immense joy to be in person again — it’s really something we’ll never take for granted, especially following the isolation we all experienced as the pandemic began to unfold. Now that we’re in person again, we feel a heightened sense of togetherness and community, of connection, and of sharing live performance spaces with our audiences in a way that feels special, powerful, and perhaps even urgent. It takes tons of stamina to be on the road under normal circumstances, and navigating the evolving pandemic while on tour adds several layers of complexity and logistical considerations. But really, any opportunity we have to be in person for a performance feels like such a gift. 

SP: Tell me a little about Aizuri Kids. What led to its inception? 

Ayane Kozasa: At the beginning of the pandemic, we wanted to find a way to keep connecting with younger audiences through an online platform. We realized that a lot of our in-person youth engagement activities translated well into the digital realm. Creating these episodes became a vital part of quartet life and helped us stay in touch with each other while we navigated time apart, in our own apartments. Now coming up on our seventh episode, AizuriKids has allowed us to showcase the many other creative sides of each Aizuri member besides performing: writing scripts, editing videos, and creating stop motion.

The Aizuri Quartet believe in an integrative approach to music-making, in which teaching, performing, writing, arranging, curating, and nurturing ties with the community are all connected. AizuriKids is an interactive web series for children that uses the string quartet as a catalyst for creative learning. The episodes explore the relationships between music and a broad range of themes like astrophysics, American history, and cooking. It has also become a way for us to feature some of our favorite composers and guest artists as well as their music.

SP: What do you listen to in order to pump yourself up or get excited? 

Kozasa: Lately, I wake up and the first thing I put on is The Bad Plus “Anthem for the Earnest” which gets me absolutely pumped to champion the day. I also love listening to the Linda Lindas and Wye Oak to get me into concert mode! 

SP: What should Krannert Center for Performing Arts Center patrons expect at your performance on the 19th?

Miho Saegusa: We’re very excited to launch our program called Art of Translation at the Krannert Center. This program is like shining white light into a prism and seeing it separate into many colors. The prism in this case is both the act of translating art from one medium to another, and also how we experience art. Each composer has a different approach to translation, like the rays of colors that emerge from the prism. Similarly, how we consume and relate to art is personal and unique to each individual. 

The first half of the concert juxtaposes three newly composed works with two songs by Franz Schubert. Lembit Beecher’s These Are Not Estonian Flowers (2021) and Paul Wiancko’s Purple Antelope Sound Squeeze (2021), commissioned by the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. and written for the Aizuris, are inspired by works from the collection: Alma Thomas’s painting Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers and Sam Gilliam’s mixed-media Purple Antelope Space Squeeze

Hannah Kendall writes that her work Glances / I Don’t Belong Here (2019) “is inspired by the British-Guyanese artist Ingrid Pollard’s Pastoral Interludes, a series of photographs in which her Black British subjects are posed in the Lake District, the epitome of rural Britain; exploring the notion of alienation and ‘otherness’  in such spaces.” In a similar way, this collection of seven miniatures are musical snapshots of my most cherished non-urban settings, and the experiences that can accompany each visit.

Schubert’s An Die Musik and Nacht und Träume are arranged and re-imagined for the Aizuris by Jannina Norpoth. These songs speak of art as nourishment for the heart, and of the serene and mysterious world of night and dreams. They provide moments of reflection as well as gratitude that we can all be together to share in music at this concert.

We experience an incredible range of colors, textures, and moods through the five works of the first half. All of these elements are distilled and make their way into the one work of the second half, Schubert’s Death and the Maiden. This piece features a double translation: Matthias Claudius’s poem Der Tod und das Mädchen inspired Schubert’s song of the same name in 1817, which then is featured in the second movement of the quartet that he wrote in 1824. Schubert at this point was seriously ill, which caused physical, emotional, and psychological pain. Even as he suffered, or perhaps because of all he endured, his music beautifully captures the often dual nature of our existence. Through the four movements, he takes us through light and darkness, tenderness and brutal despair, the hopeful yearning for life and the inevitability of death. In his songs he can capture the essence of something in a few minutes, and he is also a master storyteller, spinning an epic tale like this quartet.

Aizuri Quartet: The Art of Translation
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
500 S Goodwin Ave
Su Feb 16th, 3 p.m.
Tickets available online ($10-$56)


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