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‘There’s no kiddie music here’

Quartet coach Jenna Mattson demonstrates proper rhythmic technique while encouraging her string players to use body language to show their involvement in the composition. The lesson was part of a summer workshop called the Quartet Project. The students will perform with the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra at 7:30 p.m. today at Weber Music Hall. (Bob King / / 4
Kayla Raboin of Superior plays cello Wednesday during a rehearsal of a Haydn string quartet nicknamed “The Bird” at the summer camp for young string players. (Bob king / / 4
Nikki Hill, Lauren Cooper, Dan Richards and Josh Peterson, who call their quartet “The Avengers,” rehearse “String Quartet No. 13” by Franz Schubert on Wednesday at the Quartet Project summer workshop. (Bob King / 3 / 4
Lucie Han (left) and Brita Mowers concentrate as they blaze through “String Quartet No. 2” by Haydn during practice at the Quartet Project on Wednesday morning. (Bob King / / 4

With the 20 young string musicians before him channeling notes out of their fingers into a sun shower of sound, Warren Friesen could hardly contain himself.

“That was exciting,” said the conductor to the charges once the music stopped. “You were all pushing. Incredible.”

With that, the musicians dispersed into their five string quartets that are the core of the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra’s Quartet Project, an 18-years-running endeavor that amounts to a band camp for truly inspired young musicians.

Nikki Hill, 17, is one such musician. A violinist, she’ll be a senior this year at Duluth Denfeld High School and was admittedly lifted from an academic stupor by Lowell Elementary, when it was a magnet school specializing in music. The Quartet Project sealed her path.  

“I found my calling here as a middle-schooler,” she said. “I knew I wanted to major in music. I couldn’t imagine my life without something this magical.”

The magic of the string quartet is the golden thread in the fabric of music history. Dating to “Papa” Haydn (1732-1809), “composers have turned to string quartets to express their most profound, intimate thoughts,” said Friesen, a co-

director of the Quartet Project.

Beethoven wrote 16 string quartets, which Jonas Benson, one of the Quartet Project’s professional instructors, calls “the most beautiful music ever written.”

“It’s the real stuff,” Friesen said of the sounds produced by a string quartet, “not Pablum.”

Indeed, there is nothing bland about a string quartet, Friesen explained. Whereas an orchestra can shield its weaknesses, and allow musicians to merely follow along with the combination of sounds created by others, the string quartet offers a bare quality that places a premium on each musician carrying an equal load. Two violinists, a violist, a cellist and the glances exchanged between them, that’s it.“You have to be perfect,” Hill said.

Throughout the three-week, two-days-per-week workshop, the young musicians are given works from the greats — Schubert, Mozart and Haydn, himself — and expected to meet the challenges. Like Friesen says, “There’s no kiddie music here.”

The musicians come from across the Northland, all within driving distance. That’s part of its appeal, presenting the Quartet Project as an economical alternative to camps that require musicians and their parents to come up with travel and lodging costs.For six hours a day the quartets recede behind wooden classroom doors off the halls of the Chester Park Building on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. The environs are academic, but the sounds emanating from them can be elegiac or euphoric, depending on which door a person is passing.

While walking those halls, Benson explained his long history with the program. Now a professional viola player living in Chicago, the 25-year-old was a home-schooled boy who first arrived at the age of 12 or 13. The quartet appealed to him then and still today, as he remains part of a string quartet among his regular gigs.

“The instruments blend together really well,” he said. “Four voices; it’s my favorite vehicle for playing music.”

Benson will perform tonight, soloing with the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra at its 7:30 p.m. performance at UMD’s Weber Music Hall, where he’ll play Dobrinka Tabakova’s “Suite in Old Style” — the first time the relatively new piece has been performed on American soil, according to the LSCO.“I never used to get nervous as a kid,” he said, “but the wiser I get, the more nerves I have.”

He’ll have the support of the Quartet Project’s pupils. They’ll perform two pieces with the LSCO. “Exciting” and “incredible” are in the program.

If you go

What: A performance of the Lake Superior Chamber Orchestra, featuring the Quartet Project and soloist Jonas Benson

When: Tonight at 7:30

Where: Weber Music Hall, UMD