The Zelter String Quartet, Lerman Gold Prize winner of Chesapeake Chamber Music’s ninth biennial international competition, performs at Ebenezer Theatre, the jewel of downtown Easton’s Prager Family Arts Center, Saturday night, Oct. 23.
“Chesapeake Music was our first major competition,” Allan Hon, cellist and spokesman for the Los Angeles-based quartet, said in a phone interview. “It’s our biggest prize so far.” Named for Arnold Lerman, founder of the competition, and his late wife Zena, the award includes a $10,000 prize and the prestige of being judged the best of 50 emerging chamber ensembles from around the world.
The Ebenezer program opens with Mozart’s appropriately celebratory “Hunt” String Quartet, given the award-winning circumstances and the joy of playing live again or attending a live concert. (However, proof of COVID vaccination and masking is still required.) “The Mozart is such a happy piece,” Hon says. “It’s a lot of fun to play.” The group is deciding on two or three Scandinavian folk tunes to carry the concert to intermission. “We call it people music,” Hon says. “No matter what kind of music you prefer, you can enjoy these pieces.”
Concluding with Ravel’s String Quartet, the Zelter musicians get a chance to show why they’ve been critically praised for “seemingly effortless precision” and “harmonic fusion” (L.A. Opus online arts website). “This Ravel is one of my personal favorites,” Hon says. “It’s so textured and gorgeous to the ear.”
Zelter will be performing in the sumptuously restored former sanctuary of Ebenezer Methodist Church constructed in 1858, home to one of three Easton Methodist congregations that merged in 1962 to form St. Mark’s United Methodist. Eight new stained-glass windows on a secular theme have resurrected the former ecclesiastical space into a performing arts temple with tastefully plush amenities. It’s also the new home of Chesapeake Chamber Music, with offices downstairs in the Prager center.
The Chesapeake competition, held every two years, was hampered in 2020 by the pandemic. Although the quest for the prize began, as usual, with chamber ensembles submitting recordings for blind judging, some struggled to find a way to play together safely. The five finalists, chosen from among the 50 recordings, performed virtual 45-minute sets instead of the live-in-Easton festival performances of past competitions. A finalist based in Switzerland was eliminated because quarantining left one of its musicians stranded in Germany past the finals deadline.
Three of the four original members of the winning Zelter String Quartet have been playing together since 2018. At first, they performed for post-graduation course credit at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. “But our goal was always to perform professionally together,” says Hon. One of Zelter’s two violinists moved from California to continue studies elsewhere and was replaced by Gallia Kastner last November–in time to compete for the Lerman prize. Kastner, a master’s degree candidate at Colburn Conservatory in L.A., is the American Youth Symphony concertmaster and has performed as a soloist with both the Chicago and Cleveland symphony orchestras.
Upon her arrival, Kastner joined Kyle Gilner in sustaining Zelter’s two-violin identity. Gilner, who holds degrees from USC’s Thornton School and the Cleveland Institute of Music, studied in masterclasses led by the Schubert Ensemble of London. His return from abroad completed the original Zelter foursome, led by Allan Hon on cello, whose first recruit was violist Nao Kubota, a fellow USC Thornton alum who earned a music master’s degree and a graduate certificate in viola performance.
Hon earned his bachelor’s degree from Rice University in Texas, his master’s from Yale, and a doctorate in musical arts from USC. A multiple competition prizewinner as a soloist, he has performed extensively in Europe and Asia as well as in North America. Each resume of the four Zelter musicians now prominently notes the Chesapeake Chamber Music gold prize.
The quartet is named for Carl Friedrich Zelter, Felix Mendelssohn’s composition teacher and an early influence on his career. Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 1 was the first piece these young musicians–now in their mid-20s to age 30–worked on when they came together.
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and critic now living in Easton.
ZELTER STRING QUARTET
Winners of the 9th Chesapeake International Chamber Music Competition in concert perform Mozart’s “Hunt” String Quartet, Ravel’s String Quartet in F major, and traditional Nordic folk selections, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 23, Ebenezer Theatre, 17 S. Washington St., Easton; $35, $15 livestream through Oct. 30; 410-819-0380, chesapeakemusic.org