Serafins Summoned Bohemian Spirit on First Night of Chamber Music Festival

Serafin String Quartet

Even a group as well-established as the Serafins must entertain questions and doubts when choosing a new identity.

A string quartet which debuted in 2004 under the artistic direction of Kate Ransom, president and CEO of The Music School of Delaware, the group became the Serafin Ensemble earlier this year. The change opens new vistas of possibility in repertoire, instrumentation and collaboration. Already the roster has added piano, voice, double bass, flute and horn.

But evolution isn’t always easy, especially in a chamber music world more comfortable with string quartets and a pop culture with a tendency to treat all “classical” music as antiquated.

That’s one of the reasons the Serafin Ensemble’s Summer Music festival debut on Thursday, a program titled Bohemian Gems featuring works by Czech composers Antonín Dvořák and Bedřich Smetana, felt like more than just a concert.

Smetana and Dvořák came to prominence in the second half of the 19th century as their homeland, Bohemia, was yearning to reclaim its Czech identity from the Austrian Empire. Both composers played significant roles in this revival, fusing long-cherished folk traditions with the progressive music coming from composers like Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner.

That drive to upend prevailing conventions in search of a more meaningful art form turned their country’s name into an adjective we use to this day.

While the Serafins are unlikely to stage a revolt in northern Delaware, their performance, both musically and personally, marked a break from the typical string quartet mold. The feel in the theater was of watching a bunch of friends – who just happened to be renowned performers – getting together to play some great tunes. It was practically bohemian. 

When I spoke to Ransom several weeks ago for a story on the upcoming festival, I asked if she was concerned about audience outreach. This was code for, “Are you worried that your audiences are all going to be senior citizens and music geeks like me?”

Ransom put me in my place – very politely – with the authority of a music school president. There are bands and wind ensembles and choirs in nearly every middle and high school. There are colleges in each state with robust music departments. One recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons has more than 200 million YouTube views and a collection of Mozart’s greatest hits weighs in at 174 million. Clearly you don’t need a Social Security card to love classical music.

One of the biggest hang-ups, Ransom told me, is the concert-going experience. Studies have found that people of all ages report being discouraged by arbitrary factors that have little to do with the actual music – the fancy dress; the rules about when it’s okay to clap; the stiff, disinterested demeanor of some performers; the length of concerts. (Ticket prices can present high barriers, too.)

The prospect of a stiff, straight-faced evening melted away as soon as I walked in The Music School’s front doors and saw Ransom and Gus Mercante, countertenor and festival manager, among a small crowd in the lobby. In 13 years as a classical performer and more as a fan, I don’t think I’ve ever chatted with the folks running the show minutes before it starts.

“It’s about time to head back,” Ransom said lightly. “See you out there.” That welcome cognitive dissonance persisted through the show.

Violinist Hal Grossman and pianist Amy Dorfman led things off with Dvořák’s Sonatina in G Major, a cheerful, thoughtful piece woven with elements of Native American music, Negro spirituals and folk ballads like Oh, My Darling Clementine. Grossman told the audience the second movement (Larghetto) was his favorite because it had been used in an episode of Looney Tunes.

What he didn’t mention was that the Looney Tunes episode (where Bugs Bunny is boating down the Minnehaha River) is a sly wink at the Larghetto’s origin story. While vacationing in Minnesota, Dvořák was struck with an idea for the Sonatina at the sight of the Minnehaha Falls. Since he had no paper with him, he wrote the music on his shirtsleeve to make sure he remembered it later.

Everyone who has ever written a grocery list on the back of their hand in Sharpie knows the feeling. Great composers: they’re just like us.

By the Sonatina’s third movement, a barnstorming Scherzo, Grossman was grinning and stomping his foot at climactic moments

At the end of the piece, he grabbed Dorfman’s hand and the pair took a smiling bow. The Thursday-night crowd, small but enthusiastic, applauded until the pair took a curtain call. This would be the case for each piece of the night.

The Serafins’ unpretentious, expressive style shone brightest in their finale, Bedřich Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 in E minor, titled “From My Life.” It’s a dense and deeply felt piece by a man both celebrated and savaged during his professional life – a man who wrote some of his most masterful compositions after completely losing his hearing and a man who died in a lunatic asylum after a precipitous and horrifying mental decline.

The quartet is a piece defined by silences, sudden stops and tricky starts. The Serafins – Grossman and Ransom on violin, Luke Fleming on viola and Charae Krueger on cello – handled them with a sharp clarity, imbuing each pause and restart with character. Krueger’s approach in particular added color to the piece, her full-body pizzicato technique giving Smetana’s light-hearted middle movements the cheeky glee of a talented young man with his whole life before him.

We had a strong suspicion things wouldn’t be that easy, though, thanks in part to Fleming’s scene-setting solo to start the first movement, Allegro vivo appassionato. His introduction of the falling figure, so central to the piece, had the rich quality of an old man’s storytelling voice. Let me tell you of when I was young, it said, wry and melancholy. Listen well.

Smetana ends the quartet by thrusting listeners into his pain, writing a piercing harmonic in the first violin to mimic the ringing in his ears that preceded his hearing loss. After it stopped resounding, the ensemble followed Smetana’s tentative steps forward, balancing resignation and optimism, concluding with a calmer, wiser version of the pizzicato that seemed so cute before.

As the quartet took their curtain call, I noticed an elderly man sitting near me wearing a bright red polo shirt untucked over blue trousers with legs so short they exposed most of his calves. Clearly he never heard the concert-going rules, or no longer cared about them. Perhaps welcoming more people like him into the audience is the calmer, wiser choice that will earn the Serafin Ensemble the attention and attendance it deserves.