Ensemble Actor with a Violin

Ensemble Actor with a Violin

Ensemble Actor with a Violin

A Q&A with Esme Allen-Creighton

Of the Serafin String Quartet


By Geoff Gehman


Esme Allen-Creighton loves to play chamber works that fill the body’s chambers. The violist’s heart-expanding favorites include Leo Janacek’s “Intimate Letters,” a soundtrack to his wildly mercurial missives to an unrequited object of affection, and Jennifer Higdon’s “Sky Quartet,” an elegy to a dead brother toned and tuned by the Western landscape. She plays both pieces in the Serafin String Quartet, which specializes in dynamic dynamics. The group has performed “Intimate Letters” at the World Café Live; cut a record of early chamber works by Higdon, who won a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for a violin concerto, and turned spectators into virtual stage mates with live Tweets.

On Nov. 16 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Allen-Creighton and her Serafin partners—violinist Kate Ransom, violinist Lisa Vaupel and cellist Lawrence Stomberg, the group’s Twitter authority. They’ll perform Mozart’s D Minor Quartet, Debussy’s G Minor Quartet and the “Sabina” section of Andrew Norman’s “Companion Guide to Rome,” a musical poem about light painting a fifth-century cathedral.

Allen-Creighton is a Toronto native and a Juilliard master’s graduate who teaches at the University of Delaware, the academic home of the Serafin, which is named for luthier Sanctus Seraphin, who made Kate Ransom’s 1728 violin. Allen-Creighton plays a viola crafted by Carlo Antonio Testore, another fabled 18th-century luthier. It’s on loan, as is Lisa Vaupel’s violin, from William Stegeman, a scientist and a board member of the Music School of Delaware, which is directed by Ransom.

In the conversation below Allen-Creighton discusses her conversational roles as an ensemble member and a soloist, a programmer and a semi-Method actor.


Q: What was the first piece of music that really mattered to you, that truly hypnotized you?

A: The third movement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet in C Minor. I first played it in 2000 when I was 16 and studying at a conservatory in Toronto. It opens with this lyrical, gorgeous cello solo; the viola doesn’t even come in for 30 measures. The piece is full of these little harmonic colorings—in the language of Romantic music, those ”blue” notes–that pulled at my heart strings. It seems to capture so much more about human experience than you could in a book. It seemed to represent all the heights of emotions I was feeling.

At the time I was relatively inexperienced, playing with advanced students because conservatory groups always need violists. I think part of my passion [for the Brahms] was that this was the first time I performed with colleagues who were so invested, so in love, with music, who just lived and breathed the sounds that they were making. It was a classic teenage response.


Q: You studied at the School for Strings in Manhattan with founder Louise Behrend, a pioneer teacher of the Suzuki system in the U.S. and a highly influential educator. What was her best advice to you, advice that still keeps you grounded and elevated?

A: What was lovely for me with Louise was to go back to the basics in new, refreshing ways. She was very musical even if she was teaching the most simple things you could imagine–two open strings, for example. She taught you that you should always approach everything from a meaningful place, that feeling an interval jumping, or growing, makes things come alive.

Probably my biggest musical influence was [violist] Steven Tenenbom of the Orion String Quartet. He gave me the biggest lesson, which I catch myself repeating: what a privilege it is to play music, to live in this heightened emotional world on a daily basis. We can get very technical in our approach to playing these instruments; they’re very challenging. Playing together in an ensemble has its challenges as well. So it’s very important to keep coming back to the basic question: Why bother doing any of this? It’s because someone had something to say about their emotional world, about beauty, about things that matter.


Q: No wonder you love playing Janacek’s “Intimate Letters.”

A: It’s almost like a film score. It has all these wild, over-the-top sound effects, crazy extensions of note ranges, extremes of registers. It constantly changes moods; it shifts gears at the drop of a hat. In some of the exchanges you’re almost pulled to breaking. And if you read Janacek’s letters to his unrequited object of affection, he is not steady in his emotions. The consistency is his adoration; what he sees in her is wildly changeable. She’ll be a subject of awe, or the most tender affection. He wants to cry with pride, or do battle with the world in almost chivalric fashion. He makes you feel like you’re living a life.


Q: Why did you add Andrew Norman’s “Sabina” movement to the Serafin repertoire? Did it lead you into radical territories? Does it rip the envelope?

A: Like the Janacek, it pushes the boundaries of normal string techniques. There are a lot of strange, glassy, almost toneless, non-string sounds we make by playing over the bridge and the fingerboard. The closest thing I can compare it to is the atmospheric murmuring in Debussy’s “La Mer.” There are layers and layers of rhythmic divisions–fives on top of sixes on top of 12s. Yet the harmonies are very simple and the notes are very basic, which is very refreshing. And then there are these wild, idiomatic gestures: you’re shooting across every string, all over the fingerboard, all over the instrument. You’re playing quadruple forte–shocking, right?

Sometimes we tear into the instruments in ways that we’re not allowed to when you play Haydn and Mozart, in ways that somehow feel like a Led Zeppelin guitar solo. Andrew has us playing like rock stars, basically.

I played this piece before I joined Serafin. I met Andrew at the Norfolk [Chamber Music} Festival sponsored by the Yale School of Music. I was performing there and he was the composer in residence; “Companion Guide to Rome” was the work he prepared for that occasion. I had lots of opportunities to talk with him about the trio. He said he based it on sketches of churches he visited in Rome; [Santa] Sabina is the oldest basilica there.  One day he sat in one spot in the cathedral from very early in the morning to almost dusk. He watched light move from the lowest level to breaking through the ceiling in mid-day to coming around down the other side at the end of the day. When you play on the bridge it makes these glassy sounds, these atmospheric washes of harmony, that sound like a stream or a flash of light breaking through a section of window or a crevice.


Q: You’re very passionate about passionate pieces. So which one of the works on the Serafin’s all-Jennifer Higdon CD [Naxos, 2013] lingers longest?

A: The second movement of the “Sky Quartet” is particularly poignant for me. It was written as sort of an elegy for her brother, who passed away. I am very close to my own brother and also my mum’s little brother passed away when I was young. So the emotions she stirs feel very personal to me.


Q: You play a 1754 viola made by Carlo Antonio Testore. What are some of the biggest differences between the Testore and your previous concert instrument?

A: I’ve had to learn to do less. The Testore responds faster and more subtly than my old viola, which means I have to play with less motion and less weight. The Testore produces more sound. It sounds quieter under my ear but in a concert hall it sounds louder; learning to trust that difference has been challenging. The Testore also produces more complex overtones; it has more cutting power.

Not to say anything bad about my old viola, which I bought in Toronto while I was still in high school. It’s a beautiful modern instrument with a rich sound. My baby sister is playing it, so it’s getting a lot of tender love and care.


Q: What non-musical roles do you and your Serafin partners play? Who chooses the works? Who picks the dining spots? Who drives?

A: We all try to find connections to different places and works to play. For example, I brought “Sabina” to the table because I had performed it. We all have our driver’s license, so we all drive. I happen to be nominated to speak to more journalists this year. I hate to handle money. Kate does that; she’s good at it.

We’re not a full-time quartet, so our relationship is probably not quite like a marriage. The more you get to know each other, the more you can delegate:

Our roles are constantly changing onstage: Who’s playing the melody? Who’s rhythmically driving the piece? Who’s grounding the harmony? What kind of texture under a melody might affect the emotional content: is it a serene rocking figure or aggravated undertow? All of these questions affect our decisions. That’s the fun of chamber music, for musicians and for audiences. Listeners like watching different players take the lead; they like watching the ball being passed around.


Q: Larry Stomberg, the Serafin’s cellist, has made the quartet quite social-media savvy by Tweeting during concerts. Are you comfortable making live updates via smartphone?

A: No, not at all. I leave the Tweeting entirely to Larry; he’s the tech guy. I’m more comfortable speaking to people. That’s a common thread of the group: we like to have a conversation with the audience. I like to write fun scripts for concerts that involve: reading poetry and bits of letters, storyline pieces that help listeners have some sort of literary context for what they’re hearing. Right now I’m looking at Ibsen’s [play] “Peer Gynt” and his poetry for our Grieg/“Nordic Journey” concert. I want to find common themes, dramatic elements, so that Ibsen can elucidate Grieg, without seeming superimposed.

Sometimes it’s hard to come off the street and pick up the language of Romantic poetry; sometimes we’re just too buried in our daily thoughts and worries to get into that head space. Music can shake up the senses and sensitize you to the emotional content of literature. It’s a really symbiotic relationship.

One of the challenges of playing these instruments is that they’re so sensitive. If you hold your bow in a more affectionate  way, that translates into a slightly different sound color. If you touch the strings in a more vigorous way, it sounds that way as well. It’s impossible to play these emotions without letting your body come alive with the sensations. At the same time you have to stay very relaxed, very cool. It’s sort of Method acting.


Esme Allen-Creighton: The Scoop

Her early pop-music favorites include “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (“each lyric remains perfectly preserved in my memory to this day”) and Radiohead’s “The Bends” (she “very nerdily” arranged “Street Spirit” as a choral motet for a harmony project). “Probably my biggest influence, though, was my mum’s vinyl collection. My brother and I used to spend hours listening to the Beatles, David Bowie, Neil Young, the Doors, Velvet Underground etc. All those records are seared into the subconscious.”

She joined the Serafin String Quartet in 2012 without an audition, after substituting in concerts for violist Molly Carr, a friend from the Juilliard School of Music. “I always joke that the best audition you can ever have is the unrealized audition because there’s no pressure, no concertos and no rivals to put you through the ringer.”

She got a gig with Vampire Weekend through a Juilliard friend who attended Columbia University with the band members. She recorded three of the group’s songs for Pitchfork TV. Her favorite tune is “M79” because it opens with a juicy solo for viola.

Her Serafin duties  include playing a benefit concert for a scholarship named for the ensemble’s founding violinist Anthony Simmons, who died at the age of 38 after a 2005 car accident.

She’s preparing a 2015 recital of viola works premiered in 1919, the year that Ernest Bloch and Rebecca Clarke finished one-two in a fabled competition funded by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, who later endowed a concert series at the Library of Congress and who commissioned Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.”

In a February 2015 concert she expects to play electric viola with sound effects and sing (“Yikes!”).

Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Esme Allen-Creighton’s passion for Radiohead’s “The Bends.” He can be reached at geoffgehman@verizon.net.