If string quartets can be compared to football teams, violinists are like the starting quarterbacks. When one leaves because of injury, retirement or free agency, and another joins, the effect can be drastic. The New York quartet Ethel has just completed such a transition: In June, Jennifer Choi succeeded Mary Rowell, who retired earlier this year for health reasons.
This isn’t the group’s first such transition. Violinist Cornelius Dufallo, formerly of the Flux Quartet, replaced Todd Reynolds in 2005. Violist Ralph Farris and cellist Mary Rowell are the remaining founding members.
Fortunately for Ethel, a quartet that is known for working outside traditional parameters, Choi has a compatible resume. The violinist has been active on New York's new-music scene for over a decade, performing in groups like the Either/Or Ensemble and the Susie Ibarra Quartet, while collaborating with composers like John Zorn and Randall Woolf. In the WQXR Café, Choi performed Capriccio by Jacob ter Veldhuis, a piece for which she gave the U.S. premiere.
“We do actually click,” said Choi of her new quartet-mates. “The fact that we all went to Juilliard and Neil and I had the same teacher, we find that it’s pretty easy to match playing styles.”
Dufallo, who goes by Neil in conversation, recruited Choi in March. "It’s a tough position to fill because it requires all the precision of a classical ensemble but also being able to improvise," said Dufallo. "We all compose. And also cross over into genres that are outside the regular conservatory training. Jennifer had all that and then some."
A native of Portland, OR, Choi studied violin at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio. In 1995, she and three other students from the school founded the renowned Miró String Quartet, but she left the group two years later and moved to New York to study at Juilliard. Since then, her path has veered towards pieces that involve laptops or video footage. Several of them can be heard on her 2009 debut album, "Violectrica: Works for Solo Violin and Electronics."
Choi's audition for Ethel came just as she started her first Broadway job, on the musical "Wonderland." "On the morning of opening night, Ethel had asked me to come in and read,” Choi recalled. She received an offer the next day. “I couldn’t say no,” she said. “It was just so energizing to play in a quartet again.” (The move was serendipitous: "Wonderland" closed after just 33 performances.)
Choi said she hopes to write original pieces for Ethel and bring some of her favorite composers into the fold, including Zorn. But for now, she’s giving herself a crash course on the group's expansive repertoire. “We’re going to be playing a different program every week between now and the end of the year,” she said. “That’s going to be the biggest concentration.”
Video: Amy Pearl; Sound: Edward Haber; Text/interview: Brian Wise
Jennifer Choi: "For You"
Jacob TV: Capriccio