A quartet that’s changing the game of chamber music
The Kronos Quartet has long been known for its innovative approach to the string quartet, re-imagining what the chamber ensemble can do.

Kronos’ interest in working with diverse artists has taken it all over the globe in a variety of adventurous collaborations and their support of living composers has led to over 900 new works written expressly for the San Francisco–based quartet.

Kronos also works with many young musicians every year, and in 2011 the group gave its first quartet coaching at the Kaufman Music Center in New York City. Now, Kaufman is home to Face the Music, the only youth ensemble in the country solely devoted to the music of living composers. That first coaching developed into a partnership and most recently, a residency.

The collaboration has become a part of Kronos’ newly announced “50 for the Future” initiative, and its ongoing work with Face the Music is indicative of a changing culture in pre-college music education.

The new initiative, started in September 2013, brings together the members of Kronos—violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt, and cellist Sunny Yang—with student string quartets comprised of musicians ages nine to 18.

This year, there are five ensembles working with Kronos. In the partnership, members of Kronos coach Face the Music quartets, who will perform music from Kronos’ vast repertoire and participate in innovative multi-media concert experiences, including a shared performance at Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Center’s Out of Doors series.

The collaboration is part of Kronos’ mission to re-imagine the string quartet as well as a part of its recently announced “50 for the Future” initiative with Carnegie Hall.

The quartets perform all modern repertoire and also will premiere several works composed by Face the Music players.

The program is unique, intense (many groups rehearse up to eight hours a week), and profound (Harrington takes phone calls from students in the program, coaching them through every kind of problem that arises).

Your collaboration with Face the Music began in 2011 with a single coaching. Now you are considered “in residence” with the program. How did this idea come about? 

[Harrington:] The residency at Kaufman is incredibly satisfying and inspiring. The work that Jenny [Undercofler, co-founder of Face the Music and music director of Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School] has spearheaded is truly remarkable—there’s nothing like it, anywhere, that I know of. Here are junior high and high school kids playing our music, and at a very impressive level! Recently one of the groups was even playing music composed by one of their own members—it’s really just fabulous—and exactly what we want to see and hear in young musicians. It’s always inspiring to see the work that Jenny is doing and of course we wanted to be a part of it. It’s thrilling for us.

What does the residency entail? 

We spend time with Face the Music three times a year and this year are working with five young quartets, whose members range in age from 11 to 18 years old. We usually try to fit in several meetings and do a combination of things, including private and public events.

Of course, [there are] group coachings, but also individual lessons and meetings, larger master classes, presentations at the Kaufman Music Center’s Special Music School, and usually some sort of joint performance. Each member of Kronos has different things they’ll be doing and groups they’ll be seeing.

I’ve even had several private conversations with group members when things come up—we try to be very responsive to the needs and do what we can to support these young and very ambitious quartets.

In May, two Face the Music quartets will actually be performing right alongside us: a world premier by a wonderful Danish composer, Pelle Gudmundsen Holmgreen. This [May 13] performance will open the Queens New Music Festival and is just a remarkable thing for us and for the students.

When you are in demand as performers, collaborators, and teachers all over the world, why work with kids in New York City? Are you similarly “in residence” anywhere else?

I heard about what Jenny was up to and what Face the Music was doing and located her phone number. We’ve been friends ever since!

She’s a real force for good in the world and a wonderful example of what can be accomplished in music education for young people. I don’t know of any other program like Face the Music. We work with young groups all over the world while on tour—from Colombia to Belgium, London, Ecuador—and some we see on repeated visits, but no one is doing what Face the Music is doing.

Where do you hope this residency goes in the future? 

I dream that there will be a Jenny Undercofler clone in every city and every country. I’m hoping that there will be young people clamoring to play the new pieces that all of our “50 for the Future” composers are writing for us.

I’m hoping that these pieces will be fun, thrilling, and wonderous for young people to play and that the Face the Music quartets will lead the way for young musicians everywhere.

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