Tesla Quartet explores joy and desolation on new album

By Greg Cahill | From the March/April 2020 issue of Strings Magazine

The International Review of Music has praised the Tesla Quartet for its “superb capacity to find the inner heart of everything they play, regardless of era, style, or technical demand.” Joy & Desolation (Orchid Classics), the ensemble’s latest recording, lives up to that promise as it spans the centuries, from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet to Carolina Heredia’s 2014 Latin-inspired miniature, to plumb seemingly disparate emotions. The quartet—Ross Snyder and Michelle Lie, violins; Edwin Kaplan, viola; and Serafim Smigelskiy, cello—has garnered a host of accolades in the past decade, including Second Prize—as well as the Haydn Prize and Canadian Commission Prize—at the 12th Banff International String Quartet CompetitionT

Strings asked Tesla violinist Michelle Lie to discuss the new project.

violinist michelle lie
Tesla Quartet violist Michelle Lie. Photo by Arthur Moeller.

STRINGS: Why were you drawn to works inspired by the juxtaposition between joy and despair, including war and personal loss?

MICHELLE LIE: Life is full of these emotions and I think the music gives us a chance to explore and express such feelings. For us, it is important to share these emotions through our music making, to give our audience a space to explore these ideas. The title might suggest that the music is very black and white, but in reality nothing is ever quite so simple. There is actually a rich complexity within these works, and the two emotional worlds do coexist. Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet is generally warm, congenial, and optimistic, but it’s interesting to know that his wife, Constanze, had been seriously ill around the time of its composition.

How are these works compatible with the Tesla Quartet vision? 

We have always had a passion for contemporary music and music that has been overlooked or underplayed, so it was important to us that we represent this on the album. We’re delighted to have made the world-premiere recording of Carolina Heredia’s Ius in Bello, which was written in 2014. English composer Gerald Finzi wrote really beautiful music for strings, but unfortunately no string quartets. This arrangement of the Five Bagatelles gave us the opportunity to explore his musical world in a chamber-music setting. Part of our vision as a quartet is to share a variety of music from different periods with our audience, and to show that this music is still as relevant to us as human beings today as it was when it was written. There’s something universal in each work on the album.


What was the impetus for the project?

The album project came together as a result of our first performances of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with Alex Fiterstein at the Swannanoa Chamber Music Festival in 2017. We had never played together, but there was an immediate chemistry between us, and we really enjoyed those concerts. The quartet had just recorded its first album earlier that year, and we were eager to follow up with a second, so we thought that recording the Mozart with Alex would be a good step. By November, we were planning what other repertoire we would feature on the album and how to raise money to make the recording. We ended up doing a Kickstarter campaign and successfully funded the album that way.

How did you manage the programming process?

We knew that we wanted to record the Mozart and needed to find more works to complement it. Because there are already many recordings out there that pair the Mozart and Brahms quintets, we didn’t want to repeat that trend. We put some feelers out and did a little research, and when we came across Carolina Heredia’s new clarinet quintet, we felt that it would be a good contrast to the Mozart. Alex mentioned how the Finzi Five Bagatelles, originally for clarinet and piano, were popular among his clarinet students, so when we found out there was a quintet arrangement, we thought it would be a good opportunity to introduce the music to a string-loving audience. He also had a connection with John Corigliano, having previously worked with him on the composer’s Clarinet Concerto, so it only felt natural to include the Soliloquy on the album.

Did each member submit a work for inclusion?

We didn’t necessarily have formal submissions from each member, rather it was an organic process, I’d say. We all took some time to explore repertoire, and we’d email back and forth when we found something interesting.


Were there other works considered and rejected?

We did consider Bernard Herrmann’s Souvenirs de Voyage, which is a beautifully haunting work reminiscent of a lot of his film scores. But in the end, the charm of the Finzi Bagatelles won us over.

While duality inspired the coming together of these compositions, they are quite different musically (for example, the stylistic leap from Mozart to Heredia). These selections represent the evolution of the string-quartet idiom. How did you approach the unique aspects of each quartet?

This is a really nice question! We really embraced the unique qualities of each piece, which I think is why there is so much contrast on the album. Especially when it comes to Carolina’s work, the idiom clearly shifts, and modern instrumental techniques are a driving force. The Finzi provided an interesting challenge in that the original part wasn’t arranged for strings, so we had to find the right balance. What would have been a clear melodic line on the piano was now divided between violin and viola, so we had to be really aware of the textures we were creating. In contrast to the intricacies of the Finzi, the Corigliano is so spare and delicate in its texture that every note has to be perfectly crafted from beginning to end. When it comes to music making, however, we treated each piece equally in our hearts. While each work represents historically different influences, the one thing that we always focused on was the character of the work. The rest follows through naturally, I’d say.


What were the challenges of playing with a clarinetist in terms of voicing and sound?

Mixing string quartet and clarinet can be a tricky process. Alex has this amazingly gorgeous and pure constant sound, while as a quartet we are more used to the undulation of the sound using vibrato. This was particularly challenging in the Corigliano, since we didn’t want a stark difference in the sound between clarinet and strings, but this particular piece’s sound-world isn’t normal, nice, or luscious. We focused on the disparity in quality between first violin and clarinet and ended up with distinct musical voices, the clarinet more present and human, and the violin more distant, like a spirit. In terms of voicing, the clarinet can cover a wide range similar to the middle voices of a string quartet. The Finzi is a lot of fun to play because the challenge is to allow the clarinet to maintain the “soloist” spotlight, but the string-quartet arrangement allows us to also come in and out of the spotlight, sometimes taking Alex with us for a moment.

What do you hope the listener comes away with from this recording?

For us, making this recording was a growing experience. I am very grateful for that! With the variety of music on the album, I hope listeners will find something that speaks to them, whether it is a moment of joy or a moment of contemplation. I also hope the album might spark some curiosity and inspire people to seek out new music by composers they might not know very well.