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The Jupiter String Quartet: Orbiting Perfection

In 1945, Benjamin Britten played concerts in Germany for concentration-camp survivors, with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He composed his String Quartet No. 2 shortly after the tour.
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In 1945, Benjamin Britten played concerts in Germany for concentration-camp survivors, with violinist Yehudi Menuhin. He composed his String Quartet No. 2 shortly after the tour.

A string quartet is like a close-knit family: The musicians must work together for long hours in an intimately engaging process. They must travel together, lodge together, and be there for each other through the vicissitudes of unfolding lives. It can be healthy, permanent bonding, or it can be alarmingly dysfunctional.

Many such quartets blaze like a comet across the sky and then disappear before you can turn your head. Some, like the Cleveland Quartet, blaze for years and then, finally, disband from a variety of accumulated professional and personal stresses.

When a young, exciting quartet emerges, there is, at first, a reluctance to get too attached. If it crashes and burns, another will be along before too long to make a grab at our fickle devotion.

A few years ago, cellist Paul Katz (of the Cleveland Quartet) came to the New England Conservatory and helped create the Professional String Quartet Training Program. The Jupiter Quartet was one of its first products.

This studio session was the Jupiters' first live radio show. Listen to the extraordinary path they've found between strict early-instrument style (they play modern instruments) and the big, gushy romantic approach you often hear. It's a perfect balance.

Also notice the deep commitment to the personal and profound intimacy of Benjamin Britten's String Quartet No. 2, still a sleeper, waiting for our attention to turn from music that makes bigger noises and demands.

By choosing to name themselves "Jupiter"—after the god and the planet—these dynamic players show real ambition. We'll have to wait many years to see if the name proves valid, but they're well on their way to conquering the giant.

More About the Jupiter String Quartet

The Jupiter String Quartet's members have been playing together for just seven years, but they've already racked up an impressive collection of awards. Most recently, they won the Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America.

Before that, they captured top prizes at the Fischoff Competition and the Young Artists International Auditions. Perhaps their most prestigious win took place at the Banff International String Quartet Competition.

This is an exceptionally tightly knit group. Sisters Meg and Liz Freivogel play violin and viola, respectively, with Meg's husband Daniel McDonough on cello and Nelson Lee on violin. Liz Freivogel says that deciding which sister would play which instrument came naturally.

"I'm the oldest, so I was the first one to get big enough to play the viola. Actually, I started on violin, but switched to viola in middle school, and loved it so much I switched over completely."

The Jupiters seem serious about perfecting their own unique voice — "a rich, luminous sound," as Liz Freivogel puts it.

"We try to blend our sounds," Freivogel says, "in a way that we have a cohesive sound, but you can also hear each instrument individually coming out of that sound."

The Jupiters learned much of their craft at the New England Conservatory in Boston, where the group is based. They've also studied with members of the former Cleveland Quartet, and at the advanced string-quartet program at the Aspen Music Festival and School.

The Quartet has just begun a three-year residency with Lincoln Center's Chamber Music Society Two, a program that provides performance opportunities for outstanding young artists.

Britten's String Quartet No. 2

Composers often look to the past for inspiration, and in Benjamin Britten's case, a decisive influence was his British predecessor, Henry Purcell (1659-1695).

Britten wrote his second string quartet in 1945, to commemorate the 250th anniversary of Purcell's death. Later that year, he'd write another Purcell-inspired piece, the popular Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra.

The quartet is weighted toward the last of its three movements: an enormous "Chacony," a musical form favored by Purcell. This movement is as long as the preceding two movements combined, and unfolds in a series of continuous variations.

Listen to the previous Favorite Session or see our full archive.

Copyright 2008 GBH

Richard Knisely