By Laurence Vittes | From the May-June 2023 issue of Strings magazine
Beginning in September 2023, Julianne Lee, currently assistant principal second violin of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and principal second violin with the Boston Pops, will take up her new role as violist of the Dover Quartet. She will join the founding members—violinists Joel Link and Bryan Lee and cellist Camden Shaw—and replace Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt, who left last August. Lee began playing viola during her third year at Curtis, when she learned about Curtis’ Viola for Violinists program. The program allowed her to continue viola studies while she pursued her master’s degree at New England Conservatory, studying with violist Kim Kashkashian. Lee has since forged a career as both a violinist and violist, frequently appearing as a soloist, chamber musician, and orchestral player.
Lee plays a Robert Brode (2005), which will join the quartet’s instrument lineup: Link’s Pietro Guarneri of Mantua (1710–15), on loan from Irene R. Miller through Beare’s International Violin Society; Bryan Lee’s Samuel Zygmuntowicz (Brooklyn, 2020); and Shaw’s Joseph Hill (circa 1770). I spoke first with Lee about her new position, then Shaw about the search process.
What was the process of auditioning?
Julianne Lee: I was excited to receive an invitation to read with the Dovers. We met in Philadelphia and played through movements from several different quartets. Reading together for the first time, I think we all knew that we had something special.
Was it love at first sight (or listen)?
JL: We started with Mozart’s “Dissonance” string quartet, and immediately our instruments spoke to each other. We felt a natural synergy and openly shared how it felt so easy to play together. As the reading went on, we continued to naturally adjust and inspire each other.
What other music did you play?
JL: After the first movement of Mozart’s “Dissonance” quartet, we played the slow movement from Brahms’ String Quartet No. 2 in A minor; some Ravel; Brahms’ String Quartet No. 3 in B-flat major; Beethoven’s Op. 59, No. 2; and Dvořák’s “American” quartet. We played through some pieces just once, others we dove into a bit deeper to experience what it was like to rehearse together.
Had you prepared this specific repertoire?
JL: Yes, the Dovers had specifically requested these movements, and I had played most of them already, but on the violin—so it was fun to learn a different voice. When I dive into a new piece, I enjoy learning all of the lines and how they interact in the score. This preparation gives me the freedom to bring my full self out in rehearsals and performances.
What instrument, bow, and strings did you use?
JL: I played on my viola, which is made by Robert Brode. Having found my love for viola as a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, I commissioned this instrument upon graduating. It is a copy of an old Italian instrument that used to be played by Choong-Jin Chang, principal violist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. My first teacher, Joseph de Pasquale, played on a Robert Brode viola and so did several others in the Philadelphia Orchestra. My setup on it is a Larsen A string, a Pirastro Gold D, and Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore G and C strings. For the audition, I borrowed my Boston Symphony Orchestra colleague’s Fétique bow.
When will you find the time to prepare and rehearse enough repertoire for the new season?
JL: We are looking forward to spending some time in June together in Philadelphia to rehearse and get to know each other more. During that time, I’ll also be finding an apartment in Philly. I’m excited to be returning to a city I love so much. We will also have time together in September before we play our first concerts.
How has the tradition of chamber-music excellence at the BSO shaped your playing?
JL: The Boston Symphony Chamber Players was founded when my mentor Joseph Silverstein was concertmaster. One of many things I have in common with Joseph is a love for playing chamber music with my colleagues. The BSO musicians have so much experience and knowledge—I always learn a lot from them. Even prior to my position with the BSO, I’ve been very fortunate to surround myself with inspiring chamber music artists. The quartet I was a part of during the first year of my master’s program at NEC was in the honors quartet program, where we had the opportunity to work with founding members of the Cleveland Quartet Martha Strongin Katz and Paul Katz, as well as Lucy Chapman. Another mentor, Donald Weilerstein, certainly made a huge impact on my playing as well. His infectious love of music was always an inspiration.
I am told that your new colleagues like hiking and food.
JL: I feel like all musicians share a love for food! We talked about how the food scene is very lively in Philadelphia. I can’t wait to check it out! The hiking topic hasn’t come up yet, but I do love to hike, especially in the Grand Tetons. My favorite hiking companion is my Cairn Terrier, Sylvie.
And here is cellist and founding member Camden Shaw on the Dover Quartet’s search for a new violist and the ensemble’s plans for the future:
You were lucky to have found such a fine violist as Hezekiah Leung to step in while you were searching for a permanent violist.
Camden Shaw: We are incredibly thankful to Hezekiah for generously stepping in. Hez is one of the best violists and people we have ever had the pleasure of working with, and we’re eternally grateful for what he has given us. He will always be part of the Dover family!
What was your search process like?
CS: We had a broad and thorough search process, but it also wasn’t surprising that Julianne, who had studied at the Curtis Institute of Music with the same teachers as Joel and Bryan (Joseph Silverstein and Victor Danchenko, respectively), instantly felt like a kindred spirit musically.
How do you expect Julianne’s viola to fit into the group?
CS: As far as I know, Julianne is still in the process of trying to find her dream viola for the quartet, and that can be a long process. But when we first read with her, it was clear that her voice, as it were, came through with such clarity that we fell in love with the musician beyond the specific viola.
Are you intending to integrate Lee into your existing ensemble style as a quartet or develop a new one?
CS: When going through a member search, any ensemble must maintain a balance between finding someone to fit into the existing philosophy and finding someone to invigorate and challenge that philosophy. The sweet spot on that spectrum will also be different for each group, depending on their history, and in a way, I think we learned a lot about our own ensemble through the search process.
Some of the greatest quartets have been the amalgam of four distinctly different musical personalities with four different backgrounds. This can bring an immense amount of color and variety to the music making, but also present challenges when it comes to creating a truly unanimous message. As for our own history, the Dover Quartet began in a way that was, at the time, unique: four undergraduate students in their late teens, all studying under the same very concentrated group of mentors.
Our quartet had become known for a certain unanimity of approach that runs very deep. With Julianne, that unanimous approach has been kept alive in a very special way. As for invigorating and challenging ideas, she absolutely brings her own new philosophies and inspiration to us as well. We are absolutely thrilled to be welcoming her to the Dover Quartet!
You have announced your three programs for 2023–24 to contain music by Turina, Janácˇek, Schubert, Mozart, Lowell Liebermann, Debussy, Haydn, Florence Price, and Shostakovich. What about other projects?
CS: Following the 2023–24 season, early 2024 will see the delivery of a very exciting co-commission from Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (Chickasaw), a multi-part project exploring American Indian music and its influences. The project includes a transcription of songs from the Native American women’s vocal group Ulali; an original work by Tate; and Dvořák’s “American” quartet, which draws on Native American influences. The project will also be recorded for release on the new Curtis Studio label.