The Verona Quartet at Oberlin: A Conversation With Abigail Rojansky

The Verona Quartet (Image credit: Dario Acosta)

As artists, the Verona String Quartet are devoted to the concept of storytelling — hence the name Verona, which pays tribute to playwright William Shakespeare. “Doesn’t matter if you’re a painter, visual artist, dancer, or musician — if you’re conveying a powerful story, that’s what the artist does,” violist Abigail Rojansky said during a recent Zoom interview. Currently, the Quartet are busy preparing for their March 10, 7:30 PM recital at Oberlin College and Conservatory, which will explore that emotional connection between the musicians and the audience.

The 2020 recipients of Chamber Music America’s Cleveland Quartet Award, the Verona are serving as Oberlin’s Quartet-in-Residence for this academic year. Formed at Indiana University in 2013 by violinists Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, cellist Jonathan Dormand, and Rojansky, the group enjoys a robust career of both teaching and performing. Their goal when approaching every concert is “to make a powerful connection with the listener by unlocking these stories in a way only we can as musicians,” Rojansky said.

The Quartet’s upcoming program illustrates this by featuring pieces personal to both the composers and the group. “All three pieces are drawn from a time in the composer’s lives later in their careers, and arguably at the most intimate moments in their lives and their writing,” Rojansky explained. Though these works are all familiar to the Verona, the group is always finding new ways to explore them and keep them “feeling fresh every single time.”

The concert will open with five movements from Dvořák’s lush and expressive Cypresses. Composed early in his life, this piece was inspired by his unrequited love for the woman who would later become his sister-in-law. Though originally written for voice and piano, the composer returned to it decades later to arrange twelve of the eighteen songs for string quartet. The musical forms are traditional, but each brief movement is packed with emotion. “To take something that he wrote so early in his life and stayed with him for so long — it’s clearly something that was deeply rooted in his heart,” Rojansky said.

The violist compared the fragmentary structure of Cypresses to that of the last piece on the program, Beethoven’s Op. 131, a work that Rojansky called the “Mount Everest” of his late string quartets. The piece was the composer’s response to his dissatisfaction with his previous compositions. Complex, ambitious, and passionate, the work’s seven contrasting movements are played without pause over the span of almost 40 minutes. Rojansky described it as Beethoven at his most honest. “He has shed every restriction, every boundary — so this is just the most intimate Beethoven you can imagine.”

Interposed between those pieces will be another deeply personal work. Not often performed in the United States, Karol Szymanowski’s Quartet No. 2 is filled with technically difficult and avant-garde elements influenced by the composer’s connection to Polish folk music. Rojansky noted that she loves the placement of the Szymanowski before the Beethoven because of the unique transition between the two. “It’s unusual to end a piece with a slow and dense fugue and to start another one with that same kind of fugue,” she explained. “So I love the way the two pieces dovetail — I think that’s really interesting.”

The Syzmaowski is extra meaningful to the Verona, because it will be featured on their debut album Diffusion. The recording, which will be released in the spring, highlights folk-inspired pieces that cross national borders and also includes works by Ravel and Janáček. Because all four musicians are of a different nationality, “that notion of borders not meaning as much as the relationships that we make is very important to us,” Rojansky said.

Abigail Rojansky
(Image credit: Kaupo Kikkas)

During their Oberlin residency, the Verona have been giving secondary lessons and chamber music coachings to students from the College of Arts and Sciences. Rojansky had nothing but praise for the enthusiasm, passion, and creativity of their students, saying “We’re incredibly honored to be able to connect with them and help support their growth as musicians and just as lovers of music.”

This enthusiasm to expand beyond the boundaries of the conservatory is very characteristic of Oberlin, she noted. “It’s just another demonstration of the ways that Oberlin’s open-mindedness is helping to create more opportunities for people, encourage creativity, and just pave a really healthy new path for music.”

This residency is also a homecoming for Rojansky, who graduated from the school in 2011. She described her experiences of being back on campus as not only “nostalgic,” but also “surreal” and “kinda bizarre, but bizarre in a wonderful way.” She remembers her time as a student fondly, describing how the supportive atmosphere encouraged her to pursue her goal of becoming a professional chamber musician. “There was a freedom and an openness to essentially dream,” she said. “I can see that that’s still the case, and it’s very heartening for me — I can really identify with it.” Now it’s Rojansky’s turn to help inspire the next generation.

The Verona String Quartet’s recital will be livestreamed from Kulas Recital Hall on March 10 at 7:30 PM Eastern Time. Click here at concert time.

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