The Avalon Quartet
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Contact: Mark McGowan, NIU Office of Public Affairs
October 8, 2007
DeKalb — Only six weeks into their tenure in the Northern Illinois University School of Music, the Avalon Quartet is feeling comfortable and energetic.
As the foursome gather for an afternoon rehearsal, eight days before their Oct. 10 official debut as NIU’s string quartet in residence, the mood is light and the laughs come easy.
The sparse environs of violinist Blaise Magniere’s second-floor studio show just how new to NIU these professors are. There is none of the diplomas or concert posters or framed photographs or ancient masks or stacks of CDs and cassettes typical of the offices of their faculty colleagues.
Unlike their formal (and clean-shaven) publicity shots, violist Tony Devroye and cellist Cheng-Hou Lee are sporting a few days’ worth of whiskers. A small hoop earring clings tightly to Lee’s left lobe. Devroye mentions that he has a Thursday morning gig playing on Oprah Winfrey’s show in support of a singer. “Think you’ll get a free car?” asks violinist Marie Wang, wearing pink and blue tennis shoes.
During a later discussion of Wednesday night’s program, devoted to works by French composers, the group’s native of France quickly halts the discussion. “That makes it great right there,” Magniere says.
But these young musicians are deeply serious when it comes to teaching, performing and spreading the word about the excellence of the NIU string program.
Chosen in the spring to replace the internationally renowned and now-retired Vermeer Quartet, which called NIU home for more than 30 years, the Avalon Quartet promises to delight and challenge audiences while it coaches and grooms the chamber music performers and teachers of tomorrow.
An all-school convocation is scheduled for Tuesday to introduce the group to music students, faculty and staff.
“It’s going great so far. I’m happy with every aspect. There’s an openness and an eagerness. We sense a supportive environment, and that’s not something you find everywhere,” Devroye says. “We’re pleased with how well the school is run – bringing in guest artists, scheduling concerts and juried performances for our students, the interaction between faculty.”
“The students are helpful to each other,” Lee says. “They’re interested in how others are doing, sharing experiences. We sense a real community.”
Avalon members spend three days of each week on campus, cramming their schedules with student lessons, quartet rehearsals and, of course, paperwork. The other two days are left open for longer rehearsals and outreach.
In two weeks, they will journey to a high school in Elmhurst to perform for the orchestra, lead master classes and attend sectional practices. They hope to book more high school visits for December and January, and also are working to arrange their return to Midwest Young Artists.
Committed to coming to campus as often as possible this year to get the program off to a good start, they’re keeping their travel relatively light, although concerts are scheduled in Michigan, Tennessee and Chicago, where the series is produced by the College of Visual and Performing Arts.
They’re also talking with some NIU School of Music faculty, including clarinetist Greg Barrett and pianist William Goldenberg, about possible collaboration.
Meanwhile, they’re eager for the day when a new student quartet in residence comes to NIU. The Avalon Quartet, formed in 1995 at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival, served that role in the late 1990s under the Vermeer’s tutelage.
“NIU gave us a real place to focus on what we wanted to do. We didn’t have any teaching responsibilities,” says Wang, who earned her master’s degree here. “It was very intensive.”
“Intense” is a description that also can apply to the opening of the Avalon’s 2007-08 season, which begins at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10, in the Boutell Memorial Concert Hall in the NIU Music Building.
The concert is free and open to the public, and the building is accessible to all. Call (815) 753-1546 for more information.
On the all-French program: “String Quartet in G major, Op. 1, No. 1” by George Onslow, “String Quartet ‘Anisi la nuit’ ” by Henri Dutilleux and “String Quartet in F Major” by Maurice Ravel.
Devroye says Onslow, a 19th century composer, has “slipped into obscurity.”
“We came across this piece and liked it. It was totally fresh to our ears, but still in this style we know so much,” Devroye says. “It has a dated feel, like a museum piece. It was a different kind of challenge for us to bring it to life.”
“It kind of takes you back to that time,” Magniere adds.
The Dutilleux, on the other hand, is a complex 1976 composition that Magniere says embraces “the French tradition of being fascinated with sound and timbre.” The audience can expect a short discussion about the piece beforehand.
Finally, the Ravel is the “pinnacle of French chamber music for the early 20th century,” Devroye says. “It’s one of the first string quartets I fell in love with when I was 14 or 15 years old.”
Though it might seem like a music history class – three distinct pieces with a shared heritage that demonstrate the road from the turn of the century to more-modern times – the Avalon members say the concert is more of a declaration of principles for their residency.
“We hope there’s an open mindedness to a piece I’m sure has never been performed here before,” Devroye says. “We like border-pushing. It won’t be the last time we bring something unfamiliar to the stage.”
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