Concluding the Weinberg Center’s Tivoli Discovery Series this season is the Zorá String Quartet. Having won an array of prizes throughout their young career, they strive to introduce new audiences to chamber music wherever they go. We recently caught up with half of the quartet, Zizai Ning and Dechopol Kowintaweewat, to talk about the current state of classical music, what’s it like to be so acclaimed at such a young age, and the need to travel back in time to talk to Beethoven.
We’ll start at the beginning: How did the quartet come to be and for how long have you been together?
Zizai Ning: We all went to Indiana University for our master’s degree and started playing together in our first year. Seula joined when we started the quartet residence at Indiana University in 2014. I would say our real quartet life started when Seula joined — even though we had been playing for a while, we weren’t as serious.
I read that you’ve won an array of awards over the last couple years. What’s it like to gain such notoriety at such a young age? What do you think is the biggest accomplishment you guys have been able to achieve thus far?
Dechopol Kowintaweewat: We certainly cherish and are very grateful for everything we’ve won and achieved so far. Every recognition is important, especially for a young quartet like ourselves, because it tells us that we’re doing things right. If I do have to single one out, it would probably be Young Concert Artists. Again, as a young quartet, it’s such a big deal for someone not only to like the way we play today, but also put their trust in our future.
You performed and studied manuscripts at the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn, Germany. Can you talk a little about that experience and what you learned?
Kowintaweewat: What we learned was that we’re going to need a time machine to really know what Beethoven wanted! We looked at the manuscript of Opus 135 and there were discrepancies between the parts and the score, both of which were written by Beethoven himself. Since both versions are technically “correct,” the musicologists in residence at the Beethoven-Haus suggested we do what we think is best. This is wonderful advice because even though we musicians need to go back to the source to be as informed as we can, at the end of the day, we need to do what we truly believe in, or else our performance will never speak to the audience.
What would we be surprised to learn about your musical tastes? Anyone you listen to that nobody would expect?
Kowintaweewat: In terms of classical music, probably nothing too surprising. Zizai used to play viola da gamba and baroque cello. And as a group we really enjoy listening to the London Haydn Quartet. Pablo listens to everything and I think especially likes salsa. Seula always puts on either Michael Jackson or Ella Fitzgerald.
Ning: I sometimes like to put on music from the early baroque period. I find it quite soothing.
What do you think is the current state of classical music throughout the world? Is it thriving? Does it need help? Are there things you’d like to see done to help cross it over into the mainstream more?
Ning: I think classical music is doing fine. We still have people who like listening to it. In terms of the younger audiences, though, I think it might not be as well received as it is with older audiences. We don’t usually see enough teenagers in the audiences, and we wish we could help them understand that classical music is not something they can’t access. We have been doing a lot of outreach — targeting students from first grade through 12th grade — and we always get positive reactions from them. We will keep doing what we are doing to make sure classical music is accessible to people all around the world.
Who are some of your major influences and why?
Kowintaweewat: I think this answer can take up more than half of the interview — the list is super long! Obviously, we owe so much to the Pacifica Quartet, who pretty much created us and worked with us so intensively for the first two years. The other major influence is a teacher of Pablo’s and mine: Professor Kevork Mardirossian. He has had a massive influence on how the two of us play, and he gave us the name Zorá. Mark Steinberg of the Brentano Quartet taught us — and still does — the difference between playing and living the music. Donald Weilerstein is also another big influence, which is weird because we’ve never played for him! I have personally been obsessed with his teaching for over a decade, and anything I’ve learned from watching his masterclasses or even talking to his students, I share it with the quartet. Last but not least, our coaches at Curtis: Pamela Frank, Peter Wiley, Steve Tenenbom, Shmuel Ashkenasi and Arnold Steinhardt. What we learned the most from them is the joy and the love of making music. Mr. Wiley and Mr. Tenenbom are both intuitive players, so they talk about how to feel the music. Ms. Frank was strongly influenced by her father, Claude Frank, so she taught us how to listen and think like a pianist. Mr. Steinhardt and Mr. Ashkenasi helped us tremendously in terms of how to listen for balance in the quartet.
Can you give us names of some artists we need to check out that we maybe haven’t seen yet? Who are you listening to the most these days?
Ning: Our go-to quartets are the Hagen, Ebene, Brentano, Guarneri, Takacs, Pacifica, Belcea, Artemis, and Casals quartets. Lately we started listening to older quartets like the Amadeus and the Vegh quartets, who were just phenomenal. If we had to plug a lesser-known group, it would be Quatuor Hermes, our fellow YCA artists — wonderfully sensitive musicians!
Where are some of your favorite places to play and why?
Kowintaweewat: I would say basically any place that allows us to hear each other onstage and is intimate enough for us to feed off the audience’s energy.
What do you think is the most perfect piece of musical composition and why?
Ning: I don’t think there is a definite answer to this question. I think every piece of music conveys its own purpose and the composers are just too different from one another to compare. Everyone speaks their own language, and I don’t think you can compare them. They are just perfect in their own way.
And finally, what can we expect from your performance here at the Weinberg Center?
Ning: The performances that we usually feel great about are the ones where the audience comes back and tell us that the music meant something to them, or that they understand our story through our music. It doesn’t happen all the time, but that is our goal.