Four musicians are Canada’s—and Mexico’s—first graduate-level string quartet.
IN THE BOWELS OF THE BUILDING that houses UVic’s music department, I traverse corridors where scores of students rehearse in tiny, individual practice rooms. A muted cacophony of discordant trumpet, piano, and flute is punctuated by a soprano trilling through a Handel aria. They’re all making music—in different keys—within a few feet of each other, but they’re not playing together. Each privately hones their own skills, achieving individual excellence on their chosen instrument, hoping to earn a degree in performance.
I’m here to meet two violinists, a cellist, and a violist—all from Mexico—currently enrolled in the University’s graduate music program. They’re practicing together, in one room, as a group. Instead of working toward individual degrees as soloists, they are earning their masters in performance as a string quartet. When Cuarteto Chroma (Chroma Quartet) began their studies here last fall with UVic’s resident string quartet, The Lafayette, it was the first time in Canadian history that a group of players entered a graduate music program to earn a collaborative performance degree.
Cuarteto Chroma (l-r): , Ilya Gotchev, Manuel Cruz, Felix Alanis, Carlos Quijano
I find the four men of Chroma playing together in a quartet-sized room, instruments in hand, going over new repertoire. Each of them has uprooted his personal and professional life in Mexico to come to UVic and earn this degree as an ensemble. They’ve now successfully completed their first year, will head back to Mexico for the summer, and return for their final year of study in the fall. Already, they have had a vital and positive impact on the school community and the local music scene, playing at Hermann’s with the Ryan Oliver jazz quartet performing chamber music concerts in unexpected places.
Their graduate journey is requiring equal parts sacrifice, hard work, shared vision, and conflict resolution skills. “I got married in 2015, and the quartet started in 2015,” says Chroma cellist Manuel Cruz. “So, I got married twice.” The group chuckles. “Being in a string quartet is like being married— except instead of having sex, we have music,” quips violist Felix Alanis, and an uproar of hearty laughter fills the room. Someone mutters that music can be better than sex, and there’s more laughter. Clearly these guys have excellent rapport, but it’s not all fun and harmony in every moment, Alanis admits. “You travel together, you eat together, you rehearse together—you fight together. It’s hard, because even though you want to play music with these other people, it doesn’t mean that we really think the same. All the kinds of fights you can have about little things—or big things—always happen.” Just like any marriage, I say. “But with three people,” quips violinist Carlos Quijano. More laughter.
Music history is littered with the corpses of bands, projects, and quartets that fizzle out, amicably part ways, or violently implode. “What happens to our quartet happens to every quartet,” Alanis says. “We are friends, but it’s always tricky to keep that friendship after the rehearsal.” Surfing the tides of conflict, the group agrees, is perhaps more important even than musicianship, and they couldn’t have asked for better advisors and mentors than the Lafayette string quartet, who have weathered it all—and are still playing together after 31 years. Alanis says Chroma members are awed by, and grateful for, the four women advisors’ wisdom, perspective and counsel. “It really helps us when we can ask them, ‘What do you do? How do you manage that?’”
Ann Elliott-Goldschmid, Lafayette violinist, thinks Chroma has all of what it takes to become a world-class string quartet; that’s why the group was accepted into the program. As solo string players, she says, “They are really, really good.” As a quartet, they have “a real ‘sympatico’ quality about them…they’re really remarkable—wonderful, generous people, extremely empathetic. They listen really carefully, are respectful to each other and everyone around them, and they have embodied a beautiful way of communicating with each other.” What a quartet needs in order to truly gel and achieve the highest level of excellence, she says, is time together, “to hone their skills, to learn each other’s strengths and idiosyncrasies, to read all of that nonverbal communication that goes on in a string quartet.”
“They have really given up a lot to come here,” she continues. “Two of them are fathers; the amount of dedication that they have to each other, to go through what they’ve gone through to make this a priority in their lives...I’ve learned enormous amounts from working with them, in terms of the discipline they have. I’m humbled by them.” These particular men are “the archetype of who we want for the program. They’re each individually strong; they are wonderful role models for the other graduate students and undergraduates; they work hard…I can’t say enough about how great that has been for everybody at the school.”
Chroma plays a couple of short pieces for me: an intense, dark movement from a Schubert quartet, and a lush, heart-rending arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The small, carpeted room gives nothing back acoustically, yet their renditions sparkle and snap with complex, technical beauty—and a whole lot of soul. I say I’ve never heard a string quartet play a show tune. Alanis says they are always eager to experiment and explore. “We try to be as open as possible,” he says. Violinist Quijano adds, “In Mexico, people like classical music, but they haven’t had a lot of contact with quartets,” and by offering many different genres, including Latin American and familiar melodies, more listeners can connect with their music.
The sense of inclusion goes both ways, and all the musicians of Chroma report that Victorians have been welcoming and enthusiastic. Violinist Ilya Gotchev, who was born in Bulgaria, then studied and worked in Mexico—and also Brussels—finds British Columbia delightful, but the high cost of living is a challenge. “Fortunately,” he says, “we have a scholarship through the University. It helps.” Elliott-Goldschmid says the greater community reaps many benefits from having Chroma in town, but unfortunately, their scholarship is not as generous as she would like. “We need donors…and more funding for our music students; UVic is not a wealthy school.”
She says Chroma’s long-term professional sustainability hinges on their versatility as performers. “They are fabulous, because they can do it all—they can play late Beethoven, Brahms, tango—and pull it off. They really are the ‘real thing.’ We’re trying to attract those kinds of students, who have the talent and open-mindedness to do it all.” She says she regrets that as a young player she didn’t have that same kind of broad spectrum of repertoire. “I feel like [The Lafayette string quartet has] learned so much from them.”
As Chroma shape-shifts into an orquestra tipica and plays an Astor Piazzolla tango for me, I can hear all of their individual passion, technical prowess, and expert give-and-take. I can just see the dancers punctuating the musical phrases with precise feet and romantic flourish. After the penultimate bar, the shared effort, rhythmic pulse, and pleading voices of the strings is released. Four smiles of satisfaction now greet each other over four bows poised in unison as the last chord fades.
Cuarteto Chroma will perform in a free public recital on September 28 at 8pm in the Philip T. Young Hall at University of Victoria. They’re also looking for some music-loving Victoria homeowners who would like to host chamber music performances. To contact them, and for a list of their upcoming performances, see cuartetochroma.com.
Mollie Kaye spent some time in solo practice rooms as an undergraduate soprano, but is happiest, like the members of Chroma, performing in a group. She sings with The Millies, a vocal trio.