Kontras Quartet

Eleanor Bartsch and François Henkins, violins

Ben Weber, viola

Jean Hatmaker, cello

September 22, 2020

Rush Hour Concerts

Robbie Ellis, host


Dmitri Shostakovich – String Quartet No. 7, Op. 108

I. Allegretto

II. Lento

III. Allegro – Allegretto – Adagio

Jessie Montgomery – Voodoo Dolls

Ludwig van Beethoven – String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 2

I. Allegro

II. Adagio cantabile

III. Scherzo. Allegro

IV. Allegro molto, quasi Presto

Admired for their “superlative artistry” (CVNC Arts Journal), the Kontras Quartet has established an international following for their vibrant and nuanced performances. The “superb Chicago-based ensemble” (Gramophone Magazine) has been lauded for their “crisp precision” (Palm Beach Daily News) and “enjoyable musical personality” (Fanfare Magazine). Kontras means contrasts in the Afrikaans language – fitting for a string ensemble whose colorful repertoire spans centuries, genres, and continents.

The Kontras Quartet’s recent engagements include international tours of South Africa and Switzerland; broadcasts on classical radio stations nationwide (including Performance Today and a 3month residency with Chicago’s WFMT 98.7 fm); performances at Chicago’s Symphony Center and the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; television appearances on NBC and PBS; and sold-out concerts in Telluride, Salt Lake City, Raleigh and Arizona. In the spring of 2018, Kontras and saxophone great Branford Marsalis gave the world premiere of Dan Visconti’s quintet for string quartet and saxophone, a work that the Quartet co-commissioned with San Diego’s Art of Élan.

Kontras enjoys educational work of all kinds, and is in its fourth year as the Quartet in Residence at Western Michigan University. The quartet has also continued its work in the Chicago Public Schools with the support of a grant from the Boeing Company. Outside of the Chicago area, Kontras has made a significant educational impact in North Carolina, bringing over 200 innovative and interactive outreach programs to 40,000 school-age and college students.

The Kontras Quartet records for MSR Classics and has released three critically acclaimed albums. The first, Origins, features new and lesser-known works from the quartet’s home countries, including the world premiere recording of Dan Visconti’s Ramshackle Songs. The recording was commended by Gramophone Magazine for the quartet’s “scrupulous shading and control”. The second, Lucid Dreamer, features a septet that Kontras commissioned in 2013 with a generous Chamber Music America-awarded grant. The work treads the line between classical music and American folk and invigorates Kontras’ ongoing collaboration with the esteemed Kruger Brothers trio, as does their 2017 release, the Roan Mountain Suite.

Formed while the group’s members were string principals in the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the Kontras Quartet began pursuing a professional career in 2009. Kontras enjoyed immediate recognition, holding their own against seasoned string quartets from around the country to win a four-year chamber music residency with the Western Piedmont Symphony in North Carolina, a full time position established through Chamber Music America’s Residency Partnership Program. The quartet has received continued training with the Vermeer and Juilliard String Quartets.

 Program Notes:

The shortest of his fifteen quartets, Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 7 consists of three movements, performed “attacca” meaning with no breaks in between movements. Written in 1960, this quartet is dedicated “In Memoriam” to his first wife Nina who died suddenly six years earlier in 1954. It is thought that his chosen key for this quartet, f-sharp minor, which is typically associated with pain and suffering, shows how deeply affected Shostakovich was by Nina’s passing and their sometimes fraught relationship.

The opening Allegretto begins in short bursts that grow into a three-note descending figure symbolic of the ‘fates knocking at the door.’ Characteristic of Shostakovich’s works, we receive dark and at times grotesque musical representations, with the movement ending with a slower variation of the three-note opening figure. While the opening movement could be seen as more ironic and ambivalent, there’s no room for interpretation with the second movement Lento’s theme of heart wrenching sadness and loss. Though short in length this movement manages to express the wide range of emotions triggered by loss. The movement ends quietly but still restless, similar to something still nagging you that you forgot to do. We’re then transitioned into the final Allegro, bringing the inner grief out with unhinged energy. Note the inversion of the first movement’s downward theme, but rising higher and higher. This leads to a fugue, one Bach would be proud of, intensifying and resulting in a “Waltz of death” in F-sharp minor. We then shift to conclude with plucked notes followed by bowed chords in F-sharp Major, leaving the listener to interpret the ending based on their own experiences.

Notes by Ashley Ertz


Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) 

String Quartet No. 7, Op. 108  (1960)


Dimitri Shostakovich was born and raised in St. Petersburg, growing up through the war and revolution. Dmitri would enter into the Petrograd Conservatory in 1919 under the composer Alexander Glazunov. He

would study piano and composition, his First Symphony being his graduating work. This piece is still performed frequently and studied rigorously by many orchestra students since it is now listed on virtually every orchestra audition.

Shostakovich was likely one of the first highly-regarded composers to consciously and deliberately be politically aware, seeking guidance from and including in his art political narratives. This caused his career to be very problematic and strained at times, yet he managed to produce a staggering 14 symphonies which are still performed regularly. While he is probably most known for his symphonies, he also managed to write 6 concerti, 15 string quartets, 3 operas, numerous piano works and chamber works, several song cycles and ballets, and a massive quantity of film scores.

Fast Facts:

  • Shostakovich’s first wife, whom this work is dedicated to, was an accomplished astrophysicist. Their daughter Galina would grow to be a biologist
  • In 1958 Shostakovich would be hospitalized because of numbness in his fingers which would be eventually diagnosed as an extremely rare disease, Poliomyelitis. 
  • Shostakovich earned credentials to be a pianist for silent films in 1923. At this time movies still had no sound so theaters would employ a pianist to improvise the music for the show.

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)

Voodoo Dolls 

Jessie Montgomery is a violinist, composer and music educator from New York City.  She performs and gives workshops in the US and abroad and her compositions are being performed by orchestras and chamber groups throughout the country.

Jessie was born and raised in Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the 1980s during a time when the neighborhood was at a major turning point in its history.  Artists gravitated there and it was a hotbed of cultural activity and community development.  Her parents (father a musician, her mother, an actress) were engaged in the activities of the neighborhood and regularly brought Jessie to rallies, performances and parties where neighbors, activists and artists gathered to celebrate and support the movements of the time. It is from this unique experience that Jessie has created a life in which performance, creativity, education and advocacy merge.

Jessie began her violin studies, at the Third Street Music School Settlement, one of the oldest community organizations in the country. Upon graduating with her Bachelor’s degree from the Juilliard School in Violin Performance in 2003, she joined forces with Community MusicWorks in Providence, Rhode Island, a nationally recognized leader in community development and music education. With this appointment came her first experience as a professional chamber musician as a member of the Providence String Quartet.  She continued her chamber music endeavors as a founding member of PUBLIQuartet, a string quartet made up of composers and arrangers, featuring their own music as well as that of emerging and established contemporary composers.  Since 2012 she has held post as a member of the highly acclaimed Catalyst Quartet, raved by the New York Times as “invariably energetic and finely burnished…performing with earthly vigor”, touring regularly in the United States and abroad. Most recently she has become a collaborator with Yo-Yo Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble and will tour with them in the upcoming 2018-19 season.

Since 1999, Jessie has been affiliated with The Sphinx Organization, which supports the accomplishments of young African-American and Latino string players.  As a member of the Sphinx network she has played numerous roles within the organization, as a teacher, juror, orchestra member and concertmaster, panelist and ambassador, as well as being a two-time laureate in their annual competition. Jessie was also Composer-in-Residence with the Sphinx Virtuosi, a conductor-less string orchestra which toured her music for 3 seasons.  The tours resulted in radio broadcasts on Performance Today, WFMT in Chicago, Q2 and others, and a review in the Washington Post calling her music “Turbulent, wildly colorful and exploding with life.”  In 2014, Jessie was awarded Sphinx’s generous MPower grant to assist in the recording of her acclaimed debut album, Strum: Music for Strings (October, 2015, Azica Records). The Whole Note states that the album displays “a remarkable self-assurance and confidence together with a striking musical inventiveness and imagination”; and Second Inversion, Seattle’s alternative classical radio station, remarks that “The album combines classical chamber music with elements of folk music, spirituals, improvisation, poetry and politics, crafting a unique and insightful new-music perspective on the cross-cultural intersections of American history.”

In 2012, Jessie completed her graduate degree in Composition for Film and Multimedia at New York University, at which point composing became a true focus on her path. Opportunities came about to partner with the American Composers Orchestra, the Sphinx Organization and chamber groups throughout New York City. Other commissions began to emerge from the Albany Symphony, the Joyce Foundation, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and the Young People’s Chorus of NY.

In fall 2018, Jessie will be an incoming Virginia B.Toulmin Fellow at the Centre for Ballet and the Arts, where she will complete work on a new ballet for Dance Theater of Harlem and the Virginia Arts Festival, in collaboration with choreographer Claudia Schreier. Other upcoming highlights include premieres of new work for soprano Julia Bullock, The Muir Quartet and performances by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra.

Teachers and mentors include Sally Thomas, Ann Setzer, Alice Kanack, Joan Tower, Derek Bermel, Mark Suozzo, Ira Newborn and Laura Kaminsky.

 Program Notes:

Voodoo Dolls was commissioned in 2008 and choreographed by the JUMP! Dance Company of Rhode Island, a collaborative work among their faculty and students.  The choreography was a suite of dances, each one representing a different traditional children’s doll: Russian dolls, marionettes, rag dolls, Barbie, voodoo dolls… The piece is influenced by west African drumming patterns and lyrical chant motives, all of which feature highlights of improvisation within the ensemble.

— Jessie Montgomery

Fast Facts:

  • It’s said that Beethoven’s early period ended in 1802, just a year after the premiere of the quartet heard tonight.
  • Though he was born in 1770, Beethoven’s father would tell him and others that he was born in 1772, in order to make him seem like a prodigy. Even Beethoven himself was confused about his birth year for a time.
  • The harpsichord was dominant while Beethoven was composing, yet he would focus on writing for the piano, something no one was doing at the time. 

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) 

String Quartet, Op. 18 No. 2 (1801)

German composer and pianist, Ludwig van Beethoven, is perhaps one of the most notable and influential composers of Western Music in addition to being the crucial transition composer from the Classical to Romantic eras. Born in Bonn in 1770, Beethoven would move to Vienna

in the early 1790’s to study with Joseph Haydn. During this time Beethoven gained a reputation as a virtuoso pianist, though his hearing would start to deteriorate at the end of the 1790s. Despite this he would continue to perform, conduct and compose, even after losing all of his hearing.

Program Notes:

Premiered in 1801, the same year that Beethoven would write to his friend about tinnitus, while also being in high demand from patrons and publishers alike. Classified as his “early quartets”, Beethoven’s Opus 18 consists of six quartets written at the close of the 18th century, very much in the style of Mozart or Haydn. At this point, Beethoven was very much following the structure and scope of the times. It wasn’t until later that he would push these boundaries, leading the transition into the Romantic era.

Quartet Op. 18 No. 2 is set in the key of G major, a key Beethoven associated with wit and charm and sunlight. The first movement starts with an elegant dance, complete with witty conversation and cliff-hanging pauses. The rest of the movement is full of enchantingly simple melodies, faux seriousness and a fugue that doesn’t quite satisfy. The movement then ends the same way it started, with effortless phases and silly silences. The second movement, Andante Cantabile, is a classic aria, warm and intimate, lavishly ornamented, transporting the listener to the opera stage. We then get the third movement’s infectious Scherzo, full of grace and poise despite it’s trio starting off rather heavy-handed and uptight. We finally arrive at the Finale starting with the singular cello, slowly inviting the other members to join in and play. Full of games, this movement has it all, including a bout of ‘guess the key signature’ before all the fun collapses in a triumphant gesture fitting of the piece.

Notes by Ashley Ertz


The Rush Hour Concerts series is supported in part by awards from the National Endowment for the Arts

and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Thank you for joining us this summer for Rush Hour Concerts!

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