By Greg Cahill | From the September-October 2023 issue of Strings Magazine
The Telegraph Quartet sailed into 2020 with a strong tailwind. The San Francisco–based chamber ensemble already had landed a residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, garnered positive press reviews, and booked a bevy of prestigious concert dates around the globe. Then, the Covid lockdown clamped into place—the conservatory was shuttered and concert halls fell silent. But Telegraph violist Pei-Ling Lin found a silver lining to the situation. “When Covid hit, we were in our seventh season, and things were going relatively smoothly,” she says. “We had developed a rhythm of learning new pieces for every year—we knew how to juggle tours and teaching to a certain extent. We liked the pacing of things and dealing with just a manageable amount of obstacles and workload. And then everything stopped. Due to cancellations and rescheduling of various concerts, we found ourselves in the position of carrying the same pieces longer than usual. But because of the unprecedentedly slow pace of things, we had the unbelievable luxury of spending a lot more time on some pieces, which really created a different process in our rehearsals and allowed us to slow cook the music. Covid forced us to slow down, to take a different look at what we were doing. The demand of ‘we need to be doing something in every moment of our workday’ was suddenly void.
“It was a terrifying but freeing situation.”
With the help of manager Christina Jensen and consultant Tom Stone, the members of the Telegraph Quartet—Lin, violinists Eric Chin and Joseph Maile, and cellist Jeremiah Shaw—did some soul searching. “We really looked within ourselves to see what we wanted to do,” says Lin, who is married to Maile. “Many ideas for projects were developed during the season of 20/21—oh, all the Zoom meetings! Some really cool projects were turned into reality, such as our first Schoenberg Center residency in Vienna; our TeleLab series on YouTube, in which we break a piece apart and put it back together; and our ChamberFeast! residency in Taiwan. We are scheduled to do a second residency in Vienna to perform the complete Schoenberg cycle in summer of 2024, so it’s very encouraging for us to see how those ideas from the pandemic contributed to our current momentum.”
And then there is the new album. Divergent Paths (Azica) not only commemorates the ensemble’s tenth anniversary, it also launches the quartet’s 20th Century Vantage Points recording series that finds the Telegraphs exploring 20th-century string quartets. Divergent Paths features two works that (to the best of their knowledge) have never been recorded on the same album before: Ravel’s String Quartet in F major and Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 1 in D minor, Op. 7. In the liner notes, the quartet states: “Our aim with 20th Century Vantage Points is to display the works of composers with unique visions that also speak to the zeitgeist of their time, musically or beyond. In Divergent Paths, we explore the dawn of this complicated century of unbridled growth and creativity with two composers, Ravel and Schoenberg, who set out on very different paths of musical aesthetics and will set the stage for two ultimately opposing schools of thought as the century progresses. Despite their obvious differences of style, we find striking similarities between them once we dig under the surface.”
Lin describes Schoenberg’s sprawling String Quartet No. 1 as “a personal odyssey” and “unparalleled by anything else [I’ve] encountered,” and Ravel’s Quartet in F major as an “adventure into a very colorful sound world, which morphs into something unexpected and delightful every time the Telegraph plays it together.”
So how did the Telegraphs come to select Schoenberg’s massive String Quartet No. 1 and Ravel’s only string quartet? “We chose this unlikely pairing precisely for that reason, that you would almost never see them together and their perspectives are, at first, starkly different,” violinist Maile says. “And yet, both composers were born within a year of one another, and their first published string quartets were also born within two years of one another, finished in 1903 and 1905, respectively. To think that such diverse perspectives were coming into being simultaneously at the dawn of the 20th century is astounding, and so we chose that as the jumping-off point for our multi-album 20th Century Vantage Points series, which aims to show the explosive variety to which this century would give birth. Despite Schoenberg’s overwhelming romanticism compared to Ravel’s pristine impressionistic classicism, both composers seem to be tapping into a subconscious sensuality that is a hallmark of their time.”
A decade ago, the Telegraph Quartet formed shortly after the individual members concluded their respective schooling. Each had attended a top conservatory, including Juilliard, but their path to becoming a chamber ensemble was a circuitous one. “We had all individually been searching for just the right members and hadn’t quite found that yet,” Chin says. “I had worked well with Pei-Ling and Joseph at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music back in school, but unfortunately the situation then was not quite right. I ended up taking a job in San Diego after a year, where I met and worked with Jeremiah. After making a go of it in San Diego, Jeremiah and I both decided that we needed to be in a different environment, so we moved up to San Francisco, where Joseph and Pei-Ling were both still hungry to play in a quartet. We all sat down for our first rehearsal in September 2013, and here we are now about to start our tenth season as the Telegraph Quartet.”
Crafting a mission statement has proven to be a work in progress. “Each of us has different interests in many types of repertoire, and deciding the rep for each subsequent season is probably the most inspiring but also the most grueling part of the year,” Maile says. “Early on, though, we found ourselves drawn to the variety of language in the 20th century and the boldness of those different languages. In part, our mission is to share the strong emotion we feel from this era, despite the fact that some of it might seem alien to our audiences upon first listening. It is one reason we developed our TeleLab series, as a way of bringing audiences elbows-deep into what we love about each of these 20th-century works. In the end, whether we are playing a work by Beethoven or Brahms vs. Lutoslawski or Kirchner, we’re always trying to tap into the emotional story of the piece and allow it to unfold as dramatically as possible. This is a philosophy we hold dear from West Coast mentors Ian Swensen and Bonnie Hampton.”
Along the way, the ensemble has marked several milestones. In 2014, the quartet won the grand prize at the Fischoff Chamber Music Competition, followed two years later by the prestigious Walter W. Naumburg Chamber Music Award. Also in 2014, the Telegraph performed at its first festival, the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival in Michigan, a pivotal event in their early career. “The month prior to the festival, we were honored to win the gold medal and grand prize at the Fischoff Competition,” Shaw says, “so we had good momentum, and it was a place for us to further hone our craft as a quartet. It was wonderful to make new connections at the festival with other ensembles and artists, especially with one of our mentors, Paul Katz, who gave us invaluable insights and advice about forging a path together as an ensemble.”
In 2017, the Telegraph, which has a stong commitment to music education, landed a residency at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The San Francisco Chronicle soon raved that the quartet had become “an incredibly valuable addition to the cultural landscape.” In writing about their 2018 debut album, Into the Light, the Chronicle described the group as “an ensemble of serious depth and versatility.”
But it hasn’t been an easy road. “We are the classic case of ‘opposites attract’ in four ways,” Lin says. “We have always had to work hard to come to an agreement. It is an advantage to have so many different ideas on how to make a crescendo or to color a half step. However, the rehearsal process can be both inspiring and explosive at times.”
Still, one thing that binds the quartet is its commitment to 20th- and 21st-century music. While the Telegraphs don’t restrict themselves to playing works from the modern era exclusively, modern music is the core of their repertoire. That focus began, Lin asserts, with hearing about string quartets by Leon Kirchner, George Rochberg, and Witold Lutoslawski from such mentors as the late violinist Mark Sokol and cellist Norman Fischer of the Concord Quartet. “There is a specific boldness and directness in the impact of the music that really speaks to us,” Lin says. “Throughout the years, as we continued to play and study the music from the first half of the 20th century, we built a bond with the spirit and aesthetics of that period. For me, when we share the same timeline, there is a universal intimacy. Living through the same events helps us sympathize and understand each others’ scar tissue better, despite our different backgrounds. A lot of music is born out of responding to what happened, and we as players of today will be ready to understand our contemporary composers.”
In terms of working with living composers, she adds, there is a definite advantage to enjoying two-way communication between players and composer. “Through asking questions, we learn time and time again that what composers write is more malleable and alive than what we grew up believing,” she says. “The personal interaction we have with them also helps us understand the spirit of their music. When we worked with John Harbison on his second string quartet, Joseph bumped into him improvising jazz. Hearing that story might have subconsciously freed up the way I think about his music. With Osvaldo Golijov [with whom the Telegraphs premiered an octet along with the St. Lawrence String Quartet], it was the way he described his music, which he paints with such vivid imagery—one can really ‘see’ his music. We also wouldn’t have traded our dumpling dinner party with Bob Sirota for anything in the world. Our experience of his music is like him, very sincere and touching.”
The vibrancy of the Telegraphs’ connections with contemporary composers is carried over to the interactions between the members of the quartet themselves, who have gained a reputation for playing brilliantly off of one another. What does it feel like when everything is clicking in performance? “The image that comes to mind is the famous bicycle scene toward the end of the movie E.T. when Elliott and his gang had been chased and are pedaling hard for a while,” Lin says. “All of a sudden, the bikes were elevated and everyone’s breath slowed down from amazement and awe. The moon—or, in our case, the music—becomes so clear and beautiful right in front of us.”
What the Telegraph Quartet Plays
No account of instruments played by professional musicians is complete without an airport horror story. Violist Pei-Ling Lin has a doozy: “The latest one happened in late March when my viola was destroyed in LAX,” she says, when asked about the challenges of being in a touring ensemble. “When we were homeward bound from L.A. after a couple of concerts, my viola went through the conveyor belt at the security checkpoint. As I was waiting for my turn to go through myself, I heard a loud crashing sound coming from the other side of the checkpoint and saw my viola case fall from the belt to the floor face down. I got there as quickly as I could and opened the case immediately and saw two huge cracks by the base bar. Since then, I have been borrowing viola after viola to play in different concerts while looking for a suitable permanent viola for me.”
Lin’s damaged viola had been built in 1960 in Mirecourt, France, by Paul Hilaire. It had Thomastik-Infeld Rondo strings and was played with a stick made by French bow master Bernard Ouchard.
Eric Chin plays a violin by Juan Guilliami, c. 1745, with a bow by French archetier André Vigneron. His strings are Thomastik-Infeld Vision Titanium Solo (G), Thomastik-Infeld Vision Solo (D, A), and Jargar Forte (E).
Joseph Maile plays an 1858 Bernardel violin with a bow by Émile-Auguste Ouchard [Bernard Ouchard’s father]. He uses Thomastik-Infeld Rondo violin strings.
Jeremiah Shaw plays a Eugenio Degani cello, c. 1887 [Degani was the founder of the Venetian school of violin making], with a Nikolai Ferdinandovich Kittel cello bow. His strings are Thomastik-Infeld Spirocore Tungsten (C, G) and Jargar (A, D).