The Evolution of a Young Ensemble

To paraphrase Charles Dickens’ immortal words: It’s been the best of times and the worst of times. As we reflect upon the past nine years and the journey that the Biava Quartet has made thus far, it’s a multidimensional tapestry of highs and lows, ups and downs, transgressions, progressions and regressions, all interwoven much like a musical score. At times the individual outlines blur, and the memories of the early years have already begun to fade like the yellowed pages of an old photo album. But it’s not all that long ago that our story began …

The Biava String Quartet—whose members are (left to right) cellist Jason Calloway, violinist Hyunsu Ko, violist Mary Persin, and violinist Austin Hartman—will present the annual Lisa Arnhold Memorial Recital on May 2 at the New York Ethical Culture Society.


At the Cleveland Institute of Music in 1998, we were four first-semester students with lofty aspirations and shimmering dreams of the summit of string-quartet playing. Those early rehearsals were marked by insatiable enthusiasm and unbridled ambition. Such audacity to begin with the Brahms C-minor Quartet—but really, no challenge seemed too large! Each of us was undeniably certain how each phrase should turn, each subdivision be counted; each interval needed to be heard “my way.” It was nothing to lose ourselves in the confines of that small rehearsal studio for hours on end, arguing the finer points of a Haydn articulation, Brahms cross-rhythm, or Beethoven motif—each of us with a relentless passion and an ear only half-open to the others. Each person was reluctant to compromise on even the smallest issue for fear that the perfect performance would not be attained—even if it meant little more than a few lines of progress in a day’s work.

Our successes and triumphs went quickly to our heads. After four short months of playing together, we acquired our name—and after some early encouragement, accolades, and some small competition wins, we were on our way to becoming the next great quartet, or so we thought. Kindled by an inner fire, we tinkered with chordal tuning for hours on end, matching strokes on even the most minor accompaniment figures, and we began to amass a repertoire of techniques, sound colors, and pieces. We played as much as we could, for anyone we could; in only our second year, we participated in the Isaac Stern Chamber Music Workshop at Carnegie Hall and the Aspen Center for Advanced Quartet Studies. It was difficult to know what might lie beyond tomorrow’s rehearsal, but one thing was certain: we were on the quest.

As concerts became more numerous (and airline miles more bountiful), our lives became ever more intertwined, in sync with that of a professional string quartet. We were appointed to direct the chamber music division of the Marrowstone Music Festival, admitted into the prestigious New England Conservatory Training Program in the Art of the String Quartet, and won top prizes at several international competitions, including the Naumburg and the London International Competition.

With a more polished exterior and an expanded repertoire came a regular concert touring schedule, and an official seal of approval on our place in the chamber music world. It was the catalyst amalgamating four individuals into a group. International tours expanded our horizons, and life on the road brought new influences and experiences. The frenetically scribbling artist in the front row at one concert; eating live octopus on the beaches of Jeju, Korea; navigating the London underground and the Italian train system—all of it wrapped us ever closer, binding us more tightly by our collective experiences. It was no longer de rigueur to tune and test each and every chord, to determine the length and trajectory of each passing phrase, and to rehearse from beginning to end each movement on that day’s concert program, for a certain assurance and trust had begun to set in. We dealt with managers and concert presenters, assembled a press kit, digested reviews, and recorded sound samples and track edits. In tackling these matters—along with interpersonal arbitration regarding repertoire selection, scheduling issues, and sheer dollars and sense—an increasing level of complexity to our lives began to take shape.

In one sense, the road up to this point has been long and arduous; in another, it seems to have all gone by in a flash. We’ve weathered the pressures of debut performances and recording sessions, struggled with the gravity of late Beethoven alongside the novelty of newly commissioned works, logged countless hours on airport floors and in tightly packed cars, and mastered the art of packing only to then unpack. We have withstood the expected growing pains and continue to expand our boundaries with each passing day. Having amassed an arsenal of skills and experiences upon which to draw, over the years we’ve come to do things “the Biava way”—with a unique sound, uncompromising standards for both technique and music-making, and certain ways of rehearsing, performing, and doing business. In many ways, the pressure has mounted, the job description has expanded, and the expectations are rising. Our two-year graduate residency at Yale University as teaching assistants to the Tokyo Quartet has prepared us for the new demands of teaching and coaching in our current position as the new graduate resident string quartet at The Juilliard School.

Opinions remain as steadfast as ever, yet in a certain sense, they matter the least—for we’ve all matured and know what it might take to resolve a musical disparity (or whatever issue might be at hand). Voting on a phrase shape still sometimes results in a 2-2 stalemate, but we now know when it’s worth throwing in our chips. As we continue to tackle the challenges each day brings, the riches we mine are greater, thus spurring us onward to pursue our never-ending story with greater passion and vigor. Our repertoire wish list continues to expand, our aspirations grow, and our sights are set higher. We’ve come a long way, yet the destination remains just beyond the horizon—and ever the more enchanting.

What lies around the corner remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: though it won’t be without its challenges and rewards, we eagerly look forward to the next chapter. As we reflect on where we’ve been and where we have yet to go with the Biava Quartet, again, the words of Dickens come to mind. Each of us would say that life in the quartet “is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”


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