[ General Interviews ]

A Chat with Brentano String Quartet
Cellist Nina Lee

July 12, 2016

By Janet Reynolds

Nina Lee

Cellist Nina Lee has a busy week coming up at the festival. This weekend, she’s performing Friday and Saturday nights, and next Saturday, July 23, the Bretano Quartet, where she is the regular cellist, will perform alone before being joined by Norfolk Festival Fellows, the Argus Quartet, in the iconic Mendelssohn Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20.

It’s a fairly typical week for Lee, who says the quartet, which is in residence at Yale School of Music when it’s not on the road, performs about 60 times annually.

Though rigors of life on the road while also mothering two children 4 and 8 are challenging — “the travel has gotten old,” she admits — the joys of performing chamber music remain as thrilling today as the day she joined the Bretano in 1999. Lee is the only member who is not part of the founding quartet.

She recalls hearing the Bretano for the first time while a graduate student. Normally, students would go to concerts and then gather afterward to break down the playing and interpretations of particular pieces. “Viscerally you find out what your aesthetic is, who resonates with you,” she says of this post-concert chatter. “When I heard them play, I slinked out the back and walked my 20 minutes home and was just wow!” she says. “I do not want to talk about that. I want to keep that experience to myself and hope that one day I can crack even a little of what they cracked and discovered tonight.”

Little did Lee know that a few short years later, she would be joining her dream quartet as cellist. “It doesn’t feel like it’s been 17 years,” she says. “We get along really well. We still get excited.”

Lee mentions a new Haydn quartet the group recently started rehearsing as an example. “We played the slow movement for first time and we were like that is awesome!” she says. “Here we have middle-aged people discovering new things with the same sense of awe and excitement and gratitude.”

That ability to discover and rediscover music is one reason Lee was drawn to chamber music rather than a career in a symphonic orchestra. “I love the conversations [that exist between instruments in chamber music]. I love how the conversation switches, changes,” she says. “I love that in string quartets you can have these different combinations splitting off — three against one, two would start the conversation and the other two would finish.” In contrast to the large sound of symphonic music, Lee says, “it felt like I could hear everything that was going on.”

She recalls her mother taking her to orchestra concerts as a child. “As a young child, I didn’t lose interest but it was a little too much,” she says of the big sound and 100 people on stage. “For me I’m really that kind of person who likes something a little more contained. I also like to contemplate things and really follow things. With four people you can see visually the music bounces around.”

“It’s not a coincidence that Mozart, Brahms and Schubert returned to the medium of chamber of music,” she adds. “They felt they could use it to say something profound that no other combination could.”

Lee didn’t start her musical life playing cello. Her first instrument was piano, a two-year trial that she describes as “an absolute nightmare.” She credits the public school in her hometown of Chesterfield, Missouri, with getting her started on the cello. “A group of women came to the school and played the Oscar Meyer baloney song,” she recalls. “The cello had the theme. Everything about it I fell in love with. I begged, begged my mother who almost didn’t let me start. It became an obsession for me.”

Lee’s Top Take on three pieces she’s playing this week:

Bach: Selections from The Art of the Fugue: “I love how Bach takes one idea and how he explores the theme. It’s a new discovery every time. He’s so clever weaving that idea. Like a prism, it shoots the light through in different guises.”

Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 14, in F-sharp Major, Op. 142—“This particular quartet showcases the cellist. What I love about it is it’s slightly frightening. You’re all over the cello. For me I love being able to treat every concert as new opportunity. All this material that he gives the cello, I try to make it a new experience.”

Mendelssohn: Octet for Strings in E-flat Major, Op. 20 — “What I’m most looking forward to is playing with the Argus Quartet. What I love about this piece is that is completely full of life; that piece is an affirmation of life. I have played this octet with many groups and I have played it differently with each group. It’s a new journey every time. Mendelssohn employs every emotion. I can’t believe he wrote it when he was 16.”