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[Herald Interview] Relating to Shostakovich in pandemic times

Novus String Quartet to perform complete cycle of Russian composer's 15 string quartets

Novus String Quartet (Park Jino/Moc Production)
Novus String Quartet (Park Jino/Moc Production)
Novus String Quartet, a leading chamber music act, is set for a groundbreaking project, performing the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets.

The chamber music act -- consisting of violinists Kim Jae-young and Kim Young-uk, violist Kim Kyu-hyun and cellist Lee Won-hae -- will perform the 15 string quartets written by the Russian musician Shostakovich (1906-1975), on four consecutive days of June 16-19 at the Seoul Arts Center in southern Seoul.

“We were reckless,” violinist Kim Jae-young, the leader of the quartet, told The Korea Herald during a phone interview Friday, regarding the four-day schedule that totals at least seven hours of performance.

“This project turned out to be bigger than we had expected. Performing four days in a row means that everything has to be prepared in advance,” Kim said. “When we complete this project, this would mean that we have completed a big musical journey.”

The four quartet members were going through a mandatory two-week self-quarantine, after arriving in Seoul from Germany in late May. For them, the self-quarantine has felt similar to their daily life, as they are always rehearsing together.

The project was planned early last year after the outbreak of COVID-19. Most performances were canceled, allowing the four members to get fully on board with the project.

“Shostakovich lived in times of war and oppression,” Kim said. “It is the same for us. Our actions are controlled these days (due to the virus) though it, of course, cannot be compared to what it was like during his time.”

“We, however, finally came to understand this sense of oppression in his music, which we could have not related to when living in a free world (without the virus),” Kim explained.

Kim compared listening to the complete cycle of Shostakovich’s 15 string quartets -- often mentioned as the New Testament of string quartet music -- to going to a contemporary art gallery.

“At first glance, it is hard to figure out what the artist tried to deliver through the artwork. But after some time, one can find his or her own meaning in the work, whether it is right or wrong,” he said.

“It is the same for Shostakovich’s music. As performers, we are responsible for delivering the composer’s original intentions. But the listeners can find their own messages in the music using their imagination.”

While preparing for the project, the four members grew more attached to Shostakovich’s later string quartets.

“His music shows how he was influenced by the intricate position he was placed in under the Soviet regime,” Kim said. “Reading the scores hundreds of times and practicing over and over again, we have come to understand his complex emotions which cannot be explained through words.”

Novus String Quartet was founded in 2007 by the four young musicians at the Korea National University of Arts. Since then, the quartet has won international recognition and has been performing actively overseas.

“It is often said that a string quartet is the marriage of four performers. I believe the saying is true. We are like a family now,” the violinist said. “Over the years, we have learned to understand each other without words. We are good friends. The friendship helps us to interact musically.”

“We are lucky to have each other,” he said.

“To play in a quartet, professionalism and sacrifice are required,” Kim said. “But the allure of string quartet music cannot be compared to anything else. Through playing in a string quartet, we learn the most personal stories and thoughts of the composers.”

By Im Eun-byel (
Korea Herald daum