Rolston String Quartet performing Saturday night at West Vancouver United Church

Toronto-based ensemble features North Shore musician Jonathan Lo on cello

Rolston String Quartet, West Vancouver United Church as part of the Vancouver Chamber Music Society Series, Saturday, Nov. 16, 7:30 p.m. 

Raised on the North Shore but now based in Toronto, cellist Jonathan Lo returns home as a member of the award-winning Rolston String Quartet to play a concert Saturday night at West Vancouver United Church.

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The award winning quartet was formed in the summer of 2013 at the Banff Centre for Arts and named after Canadian violinist Thomas Rolston, the founder and long-time director of the Music and Sound Programs at the Banff Centre.

Along with Lo on cello the group features Luri Lee and Emily Kruspe on violins and Hezekiah Leung on viola.

Lo and his bandmates in the RSQ were the graduate quartet-in-residence at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and over the past six years have performed several major tours of North America and Europe.

In 2018, they were the first international ensemble chosen for the prestigious Cleveland Quartet Award from Chamber Music America.

The RSQ spend much of the year on the road entertaining audiences with a well thought-out repertoire.

“For the most part we have the incredible luxury of choosing the repertoire that we want to play at this point in our lives,” says Lo. “From then on it becomes a collaboration between us and our managers to craft programs that, of course, not only feature music that we feel is very compelling and that really means something to us but also that’s really built around some theme or narrative thread. [The music chosen] creates more connections in terms of the programming so that it’s not just a greatest hits or a random hodge podge.”

Even though the RSQ won’t be playing any Beethoven material outright on Saturday night the composer’s late quartets provide a conceptual thread that ties together music written centuries apart: Felix Mendelssohn’s “String Quartet No. 2 in A Minor, Op. 13” (1827) and Canadian composer Eugene Astapov’s “Beacon” (2019).

“The Mendelssohn is an extraordinary work,” says Lo. “Both Mendelssohn and Schubert (also on the program) lived unfortunately very brief lives but they were incredibly prolific. The Opus 13 quartet, which is the first string quartet that he’d ever written came at the very heady point in history right after the death of Beethoven (in 1827). Beethoven’s late quartets were not well understood by audiences at that time and Mendelssohn, I think, was one of the people who really understood the gravity and the impact that they would have subsequently in music history. For him to write this quartet, where you can tell he’s been very heavily influenced and inspired by the late Beethoven quartets, and then to create a remarkable original work like the Opus 13 at the tender age of 18 is really quite special.”

The ensemble will follow the Mendelssohn quartet with a work by Astapov, specially commissioned for the RSQ.

“He’s an extraordinarily gifted composer and actually one of my closest friends,” says Lo. “We’ve known each other for a very long time now and went to undergraduate and masters together. “Beacon” is a fantastic work, has lots of ties to the ecological impact of mankind, as well as some quotes to the late Beethoven quartets.

“Following the intermission we will play one of Schubert’s last string quartets, his monumental, “Death and the Maiden,” [String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (1824)], another tremendous work that really encapsulated Schubert’s greatest qualities at the height of his powers – even at a time when health-wise he was in dire straits and probably knew he wouldn’t be on this planet too much longer.”

Earlier this month the RSQ released their debut album, Souvenirs, featuring compositions all written by Tchaikovsky.

“We really wanted our first recording to be about a composer whose music we’ve always gravitated towards,” says Lo.  “We’ve had an incredible time performing his first string quartet a lot on tour in prior seasons.”

Souvenirs features two special guests, violist Miguel da Silva and cellist Gary Hoffman, who augment the RSQ in a sextet performance of the third movement from Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.”

“We felt if we could include some of our closest mentors, who really push us and inspire us to this day, it would really be an amazing opportunity for us,” says Lo. “It was a real treat for us to work with two great musicians.”

The quartet have also included a few arrangements from Tchaikovsky’s Children’s Album, originally written for solo piano.

“The arrangements were done by the founding first violinist of the Borodin Quartet [Rostislav Dubinsky] and they are just a real delight for us to play for audiences,” says Lo. “Calling it a Children’s Album is kind of a misnomer because you can certainly tell some of them have allusions to darker more mature themes but like all Tchaikovsky there’s a real exuberance and joy to his music that we find very compelling.”

Souvenirs was made available on all major streaming platforms on Nov. 1 and on CD Nov. 8.

The Vancouver Chamber Music Society is offering an afternoon series at Highlands United Church in North Vancouver and an evening series at West Vancouver United Church in its 2019/2020 season.

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