In Conversation with the Cong Quartet

Vantage Music | June 2021 | Hong Kong

In early June, Vantage Music caught up with the Cong Quartet to talk about their musical experience and their future endeavours. Formed in 2015 at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music in the US, this year marks the sixth anniversary for the ensemble. Through this brief exchange with the group, we get to know about their development in the past few years, including the challenges they have faced as a professional string quartet.

VM: The quartet has been ensemble-in-residence at the Chinese University of Hong Kong for the past two years. What is the commitment like? Can you share your experience with us?

CQ: When the position was offered to us, Professor Chan Wai Kong was about to retire and coincidentally it was the tenth anniversary since the ensemble-in-residence programme was established. The Department of Music wanted to appoint an ensemble group which was also alumni of the university. They hoped that the group could hold the position for longer than just one year, as has been the case previously, to give students more time to get to know the ensemble before another one took over. This is particularly true for composition students because, just as they start to understand the style of the ensemble through writing for them, the ensemble has already moved on.

We would perform and record compositions by CUHK composers. Also, we taught chamber music masterclasses and offered coaching to students.

It is a pity that, during our first year of residency, many activities were cancelled or postponed due to political events and COVID. We still managed to organise a recital in January 2020, performing works by Webern, Beethoven, Hong Kong composer Adrian Wong and also a quintet by American composer Kenji Bunch with violist Kaori Wilson from the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Shortly after this recital, the arrival of the pandemic forced everything to be put on hold again. It wasn’t until June, when the situation improved, that we were able to hold an in-house composition concert.

The teaching schedule of the second year of our residency was more stable. We had two recording sessions of the composers’ work, which were turned into online-broadcasted concerts. And, besides chamber music coachings, we held a lecture recital on Beethoven String Quartet Op. 59 no. 1 and the manuscript version of the Mendelssohn Octet in May 2021. We got to perform the Mendelssohn with four students and it was a very meaningful collaboration.

VM: Would you like to tell us about your Europe trip at the end of last year? Was it at the Netherlands String Quartet Academy all the time? How did it come about?

CQ: In October last year, we went to different major cities in the Netherlands over six weeks, including Amsterdam, Utrecht, The Hague and Rotterdam. The Nederlandse Strijkkwartet Academie (NSKA) in Amsterdam is the only place that consists of string quartets and offers only string quartet-focused courses. The institution is affiliated to the Conservatorium van Amsterdam (CvA) and they had degree programmes but the one we went for was more flexible such as the duration of the course and lesson arrangements with our tutors. Apart from the music director, most of the tutors do not teach at the Conservatorium; they provide coaching at the Conservatorium or in different parts of the Netherlands and all over Europe.

We were not the only ensemble group there; the Academy had around twenty or so ensembles each year but they didn’t all come at the same time. We met around three to four of these ensembles. For example, when we attended coaching sessions in Utrecht, the tutor was booked for the whole day and each ensemble group had around three to four hours with the tutor. We had classes for three consecutive days.
In terms of performances, we had two private invitations but the concerts were cancelled due to crowd restrictions brought on by COVID. Moreover, a week-long performance in France was also called off due to complications with visa arrangements.

VM: You guys won both the first prize and grand prize at the 2019 Salzburg Mozart International Chamber Competition in Tokyo. What was the repertoire like for this competition? How was the experience?

CQ: The competition took place at the Yamaha Ginza in Tokyo. There were two rounds to the competition and any chamber work by Mozart was allowed, not limited to string quartets. To meet the timing requirement, we had to add something else of our choice on top of a work by Mozart. We played Ravel’s String Quartet.

We arrived in Tokyo three days in advance for rehearsal. We were called to backstage thirty minutes before our turn and we felt the pressure when we saw the young players who were on before us as it is a known fact that the Japanese maintain a very high standard.

From the comments we received, we were well-liked, which perhaps had something to do with being one of the last groups to perform, which made us more memorable. However, we were also told by the adjudicators that ‘the Mozart was not very convincing!’ which worried us. The result of the competition was announced a week later.

The winner of the competition was offered one concert in Tokyo and one in New York. We were invited four times but the pandemic started after our first invitation. We wanted to invite some friends to attend the concert in New York but it was sold out.

One of the adjudicators was a professor at the University of North Texas. He personally invited us to Texas. For the concert in Texas, the audience was mainly students. We were also invited to some composer forums during our time there.

VM: The quartet was formed in 2015 at Indiana University while you were all there. From the past five years of experience, what are some of the important habits to form, things to develop, as you are gelling as a quartet?

CQ: It is important to practise your own part thoroughly before coming to rehearsals. It is difficult to play together if you don’t prepare your own part beforehand. A lot of people like to use the word ‘jamming’, which we find unappealing because ensemble practice should be regarded as a professional engagement.

Group rehearsal is not only about learning your own part but also those of the other players. But we find that even that should be done in your own time outside of rehearsal. Rehearsal time is a space which allows for experimenting with each other in terms of what works best as an ensemble. Intonation, tempo or character are some of the things that we try to coordinate.

We also focus a lot on discussing who should take the lead in different moments in the music. Another fun thing when rehearsing is that the first violin doesn’t always have the leading voice, or for most of the time the driving force of the music isn’t the melody. So each part of the quartet is equally important and we will have our own moments to lead the flow of the music.

And, throughout the five years, we think we understand each other’s tendency and approaches better. For instance, matching intonation is a big part of quartet playing. During our first or second year, there was a Mendelssohn piece that we played where we had found it difficult to play scale passages in unison or in parallel. Each of us has a slightly different tuning tendency. One of us tended to play more in equal temperament as he was a pianist before, while some others played in a just intonation.

As a chamber group, each player doesn’t bring just 25% to the quartet to make a whole, but each brings 100% of himself to the ensemble.

VM: Do you listen to recordings as references?

CQ: We wouldn’t only listen to recordings of the pieces that we are working on. We would listen to other works by the same composer of that piece. For example, Haydn had written numerous string quartets and if we were playing quartet Op. 76 no. 2 we would listen to the other five in the same opus. We would listen for the dynamic between members of the other chamber groups as well as observing how other string quartets approach the music of that composer.

VM: Do you listen together to yourselves?

CQ: Some of us do and some of us don’t. We have a habit of recording our rehearsals. In the early stages, such as when we were in the US and were living together, we would listen to the recordings of our rehearsals together because we had more time. However, now we aren’t quite able to do that except during quarantine.

We would still listen to recordings of our rehearsals or coaching to pick out places for discussion. When we spent too much time in just one section and got stuck, we would listen to the recording and it actually sounded fine by the third or fourth listening. By doing that, we would know when to move on to the next section when we encounter the same situation next time.

Relying on recordings to evaluate our performance could be both a good thing and a bad thing. The recording is not always a true reflection. Sometimes when you record at a close distance it sounds clear, but when you are ten metres away it becomes blurry. The recorder can pick up the tiniest sound which you did not intend to project so you have to be very careful and take into account the qualities of the environment.

Listening back to recording is helpful for reliving the rehearsal experience and for evaluating our interpretation choices, but not for determining whether our performance has met a certain standard.

VM: Do you guys agree on the tempo before starting to rehearse?

CQ: As a quartet, we would agree on a particular tempo. But, at the same time, we always experiment playing the same piece in different tempi. Sometimes if we perform at a very reverberant venue, we need to take down the tempo for the sake of clarity; if we perform somewhere that allows for a more direct sound, we might want to play faster. And the tempo is also affected by our mood on the day of rehearsal. If we are tired, we might play at a slower tempo. It is not a bad thing because often we would find new inspiration in the tempo of the piece under these circumstances.

VM: Are there any other things that you find effective?

CQ: We are very fortunate to have known a lot of quartets who played on the recordings personally, so we are able to ask them questions. For example, with the Shanghai Quartet, when we find something interesting about their interpretation choices such as fingering, we would send them an email or, more conveniently now, a message.

VM: Do you guys argue? Tell us a time when you guys really fought over something and the subsequent conflict resolution.

CQ: Yes – about what to wear! We don’t like wearing all black.

Disagreements on a musical level are inevitable. Of course, there is no right or wrong: we can do our own thing if it doesn’t cause any conflict. It is often difficult to assimilate comments from other members of the ensemble because they haven’t played our part and we have to try to make sense of what they meant and incorporate that into our own playing.

We have heard from our tutors who also play in ensembles that, as a group, they may have played a piece over and over multiple times but were still unable to achieve a satisfactory version. On the extreme, some groups may not play together any more or even talk to each other. However, when there is friction amongst the ensemble, they would still have to play together harmoniously and professionally when performing.

VM: Do you think the quartet has evolved since 2015? How do you think this has affected the sound?

CQ: What I think has evolved the most during these past five years is the communication language we use both within the group and with ourselves. For example, like we mentioned about note accuracy, we have developed a system to achieve that, and we would use that in our practice sessions.

We have different sounds individually. When there are changes in members of the quartet, the sound would inevitably be different. When we perform with a new member in the quartet, there would be a different kind of atmosphere. It is not evident during rehearsals, especially as we sit in the same place every time, but we would know from feedback from the audience.

For example, when we performed for the first time after having spent three months in the Netherlands, our regular audiences told us that we sounded very different.

The biggest difference between rehearsals and performance is that everything seems to stay pretty much the same during rehearsals but, at a live performance, adrenaline can affect each player. That’s when the group really gets to know the new player’s habits.

In technical terms, we were told to play nearer the bridge by a tutor during our time in Europe. This may not sound very different when only one person is playing, but when all four of us are playing this way together, the effect would be amplified.

VM: In terms of repertoire, does the quartet have any preferences? Or are you are still exploring most of the standard repertoire?

CQ: We haven’t yet agreed on a particular composer which all of us like – we need time to discover which composer has the most influence on us. One of our tutors from the Borodin Quartet told us that Shostakovich has a large influence on them, but not every piece by the composer interests us.

For us as a quartet, we mostly play to prepare for competitions so our repertoire is determined by the competition requirements. We would like to explore works by composers such as Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart with whom everyone is familiar.

We would also look at contemporary works by American and European composers. Some of these works may already be performed over and over numerous times abroad so we would like to bring these pieces to Hong Kong. We would choose those that are suitable for string quartet in terms of the sound effect of course.

We try to choose local works which represent our culture, which would make our performance more unique. But, for us, works by composers like Beethoven really speak for us in terms of the message we want to convey through our playing.

When we are young, we appreciate music such as works by Beethoven because they sound pleasing but, as we grow older, we become more interested in exploring how to turn our thoughts into music. We use this kind of skill more when making contemporary music. We did a project using multimedia to express a philosophical issue and to create a voice in society and to turn this idea into music. A good piece of work allows you to understand the relationship between the message and the sound and we’d like to use this skill with composition of classical pieces.

For instance, in our lecture recitals, a lot of the works have been heard countless times but, when we discuss and try to understand the historical background of the pieces, you will find that what you play represents something or has some kind of significance and that brings something different to the piece.

If we choose works by some composers to play as a cycle, we can consider whether we can relate to his thoughts when composing the piece. For example, the things that some composers write are a puzzle: would that be something that we’d like to explore? For example, war can be a theme. But we haven’t decided on what to focus on, such as which composer to play as a cycle, but we are interested in doing something like this.

VM: Did you have a teacher for the quartet at the beginning? How influential is it in forming the quartet at that time?

CQ: Brandon Vamos, cellist of Pacifica Quartet in Indiana, was our first tutor. We are familiar with the other members of the Pacifica Quartet too. They are good role models and are very down to earth. They taught us how to interact as a quartet and demonstrated to us what this career path is like. There are two to three quartets who trained under them who went on to have professional careers or to other schools as ensemble-in-residence. Chamber music was not very popular in Hong Kong at the time.

VM: Do you remember the most enjoyable moment – when it was like, ‘I am so lucky to be part of this group?’

CQ: Performing is always enjoyable. Although we often have disagreements musically, we enjoy playing together and we would always find a solution.

Having the chance to travel together is also a bonus. We remember the time when we went to Iceland for a music festival and the long daytime meant that we could do a lot.

VM: I suppose you have fans… do you interact with them? How? Have they ever inspired you?

CQ: We would communicate with them through private message on Instagram. They would post videos on Instagram and tag us. We have fans of all ages such as our friends and classmates whom we may not be familiar with but we find that they always come to our concerts. There are also high school students and even seniors. They like our music and not necessarily us as individuals. Some people at first come to listen to our concerts to see who we are, then they get hooked on to our music.

VM: What has been the most embarrassing moment for the group? The most bizarre thing live on stage? How did you react?

CQ: (Francis Chik – 1st violin) I remember there was an online live concert where I had a mix-up with the rundown. I started playing a different piece to the rest of the quartet and the others all looked at me in bewilderment. We started afresh and the mistake was edited out. There were interruptions to the broadcast and the performance was shortened.

(All) Another occasion was during a summer festival, when one of us was tuning our instrument, the other mistook a gesture for starting the performance when not all of us were ready.

There was one time when we played Dvořák’s Piano quartet no. 2 and there was one bit which was played in unison but one of us played a note wrong during rehearsal. Although we made the effort to remind ourselves not to repeat the mistake during the performance, we still messed up.

During a rehearsal for Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op. 47, at Indiana University, there was one part where one note always sounded out of place. However, when the conductor picked out each section to play on their own, everyone played the right notes. At the dress rehearsal before the performance, the cello principal, who is also a quartet player, came to Yan-Ho [the cellist in the Cong Quartet] and said that he played in the wrong clef (should be tenor clef but he read it in bass clef).

VM: What is your future plan? Upcoming months? What would you like to achieve in a few years’ time?

CQ: We will be touring in the US. We will also return to the Netherlands in October this year and also the week-long performance in France, which was supposed to take place last year, is rescheduled for this year.

We would like to continue to grow as a quartet and aspire to win a bigger competition.
In Hong Kong, a quartet player doesn’t seem to be recognised as a full-time profession: people expect you to be also doing something else like teaching or playing in an orchestra.

We would like to establish ourselves as a quartet that can represent Hong Kong and to be a role model for the younger generation.
The interview came to a close after nearly two hours of intriguing conversation. We wish the Cong Quartet every success for their upcoming projects.

Interviewed by Vantage Music, written by Puntid Tantivangphaisal.