Acclaimed as one of America’s outstanding ensembles, the New York City based Cassatt String Quartet has performed throughout North America, Europe, and the Far East, with appearances at New York’s Alice Tully Hall, and Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood Music Theater, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, Theatre des Champs-Élysées in Paris, Centro National de las Artes in Mexico City, Maeda Hall in Tokyo, and Beijing Central Conservatory in China. At the Library of Congress, the Cassatt performed on the library’s matched quartet of Stradivarius instruments and performed the complete Beethoven Quartet cycle three times at University at Buffalo.
The Cassatt has been presented on major radio stations such as National Public Radio’s Performance Today, Boston’s WGBH, New York’s WQXR and WNYC, on Canada’s CBC Radio and Radio France, and was named three times to Alex Ross’ 10 best classical recordings of the year in The New Yorker magazine. The Cassatt’s discography includes eclectic new quartets by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Stucky, by Guggenheim fellow, Daniel S. Godfrey (Koch International Classics) and by Grawemeyer and Rome Prize winner Sebastian Currier (New World).
The Cassatt String Quartet has received numerous awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the USArtists International, Chamber Music America, CMA/ASCAP, the Mary Flagler Cary Charitable Trust, Meet the Composer, and the Amphion, Copland, Fromm and Alice M. Ditson Music Foundations. Since 1995, they have been included on the performing artist roster for the New York State Council on the Arts. Formed in 1985 with the encouragement of the Juilliard Quartet, the Cassatt initiated and served as the inaugural participants in Juilliard’s Young Artists Quartet Program and was awarded chamber music fellowships to Tanglewood and Yale, where the ensemble served as teaching assistants to the Tokyo Quartet. The Cassatt String Quartet was a prize winner at the Fischoff and Coleman Chamber Music Competitions, and the Banff International String Quartet Competition.
With a deep commitment to nurturing young musicians, the Cassatt has offered classes for composers and performers at the American Academy in Rome, the Toho School in Tokyo, Bowdoin International Music Festival, Columbia, Cornell, Princeton, Syracuse Universities, and the University of Pennsylvania. The Cassatt was a guest clinician at the Texas Music Educators Association in San Antonio and the Midwest Clinic International in Chicago, and this year marks their 10th annual Cassatt in the Basin! educational chamber music residency in Texas.
Equally adept at classical masterpieces and contemporary music, the Cassatt has collaborated with a remarkable array of artists/composers including distinguished members of the Tokyo, Cleveland and Vermeer Quartets, pianists Ursula Oppens and Marc-Andre Hamelin, clarinetist David Shifrin, flutist Ransom Wilson, jazz pianist Fred Hersch, didgeriedoo player Simon 7, the Trisha Brown Dance Company, and composers Louis Andriessen, Kaija Saariaho, Joan Tower and John Corigliano.
The Cassatt String Quartet is named for the celebrated American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.
Famed ensemble commissions new piece from Austin composer Dan Welcher writes impressionistic piece for the Cassatt String Quartet
By Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
AMERICAN-STATESMAN ARTS WRITER
Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Cassatt Quartet — the New York-based all-female string quartet — has crafted its acclaimed reputation over the past two decades as being a champion of work by living composers.
“We have a sense of duty,” says violinist Jennifer Leshnower. “We feel that we have a responsibility to promote music of our time and leave an artistic stamp on our time.”
That stamp can be seen in some 20 CDs the Cassatt String Quartet has recorded since the group started in 1985, some featuring music written specifically for the quartet.
But now, the latest issue from the foursome features a piece that, surprisingly, the forward-thinking group hadn’t yet commissioned — a quartet honoring their namesake, American impressionist painter Mary Cassatt.
The Cassatt String Quartet commissioned noted Austin composer Dan Welcher to write the namesake piece. On Thursday, the group will give Welcher’s String Quartet No. 3 “Cassatt” its Texas premiere at the University of Texas’ McCullough Theatre. The piece is also included on the groups latest release on Naxos Records, “Dan Welcher: String Quartet’s Nos. 1-3.” Thursday’s program also include’s Welcher’s String Quartet No. 2 “Harbor Music.”
“As four women artists, we thought it would be good to take inspiration from a leading female artist of the past,” says Leshnower on why the group chose the painter as its namesake. “Cassatt was ahead of her time in many ways, socially and artistically, and we’re very proud to have that be a part of our identity.”
Welcher, who teaches composition at UT, has written on commission for the Boston Pops and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, among other ensembles, and his work has been performed by more than 50 orchestras, including Chicago Symphony and the St. Louis Symphony. In May, his Fifth Symphony was premiered by the Austin Symphony Orchestra in two sold-out concerts.
“Like many things, (this commission) was all about the timing,” said Lesnower. noting that the group’s relationship with Welcher goes back more than 12 years. “He embraced this project with a lot of verve.”
The four musicians let Welcher choose which of Cassatt’s paintings to use as inspiration.
Born to wealthy American parents, Cassatt (1884-1926) spent the majority of her career in France, where she aligned with the Impressionists just as those artists were forming their singular style of vivid brushstrokes portraying a sense of movement.
Though Cassatt is perhaps best known for her tender portraits of mothers and children, Welcher found intrigue in her images that featured just a single figure. After poring through catalogs of Cassatt paintings, Welcher settled on a trio of paintings on which to base the three-movement piece, one each from the artist’s early, middle and late years.
“Here (Cassatt) was, a talented woman artist desperate for approval in all male-world,” said Welcher. “The challenge was how to tell that story in music.”
The three movements are musically connected by a recurring lilting melody that Welcher calls “Mary’s Theme.”
The earliest painting, “The Bacchante” shows a young girl playing a tambourine. “At the Opera,” painted in 1878 just as Cassatt’s mature style was emerging, reveals a woman alone in a box at the opera peering through opera glasses. The woman’s gaze is at something that’s not on the stage. And in turn she is being viewed by a gentleman. “That painting really moved me the most because it presents an intriguing story that could have multiple readings,” says Welcher.
In Welcher’s reading, he imagined that the woman arrived late to the opera, by herself, but is not really interested in it. Welcher wound strains of a well-known chorus from Gounod’s “Faust” (an opera Cassatt would have surely been familiar with) throughout the eight-minute movement, layering the familiar melody within a totally new-sounding music. The result is a kind of “opera-inspired dream,” Welcher says.
Welcher chose “Young Woman in Green, Outdoors in the Sun,” painted at the end of Cassatt’s career, to represent the final movement. Showing a confident, if slightly disinterested, woman looking sideways, the portrait depicts a woman of striking self-assurance. Still, there’s a hint of melancholy to the painting.
In her final years, Cassatt experienced near-total blindness as her eyesight faded, a fact that intrigued Welcher. “It had to have been a fate worse than death for a painter to lose her vision,” says Welcher. As Cassatt lost her vision, her paintings became less focused. In his musical interpretation, Welcher blends melodies in the final movement in a dreamlike fashion.
“In a way it’s all very impressionistic,” Welcher says of the entire new piece.
Just like Cassatt’s work.