Meet the Ivalas Quartet

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Courtesy of Ivalas Quartet

The Ivalas Quartet only recently arrived in Colorado, but if you follow classical music you will be hearing about them soon.

That’s because they are the new graduate string quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado College of Music, studying with the Takács Quartet. And they are very good — but don’t take my word for it. They will play their first full concert program in Boulder at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Nov. 18, at St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church. The performance is free and open to the public.

Their program fits the standard format for student recitals — or, for that matter, most professional string quartet concerts: A classical period quartet (in this case, Haydn’s Quartet in D major, op. 71 no. 2); a 19th century quartet (Beethoven’s String Quartet in E minor, op. 59 no. 2, the “Second Razumovksy” Quartet); and one work that is more recent or less known (the First String Quartet by 20th century American composer George Walker).

This program was chosen by the members of the quartet, with guidance from the Takács Quartet. The Ivalas Quartet submitted a list of pieces that they wanted to play during their first year on campus, and the Takács then suggested several program combinations from that list. 

“We really liked this program,” Reuben Kebede, one of the Ivalas Quartet’s violinists, says. “It usually works well when you juxtapose some more traditional pieces with something that people haven’t heard. We’re really excited about it, and the Walker is the piece that isn’t played often.”

Of course, the Ivalas Quartet had played together well before their CU auditions. They first got together when they were students at the University of Michigan. The name doesn’t actually mean anything; it’s a word they made up, but everyone liked the sound. It has the added advantage that the quartet is almost the only result in Google searches for “Ivalas.”

During their years at Michigan, the Ivalas played a number of concerts and attended workshops with other professional quartets. Coming to the end of their studies, they decided that they wanted to stay together and pursue a professional career in chamber music. They looked into several advanced programs for string quartets, including the CU graduate residency with the Takács. In the end they applied for three where they had auditions. 

Anita Dumar, the Ivalas’ other violinist, explains: “This program (at CU) was recommended to us, and what was really interesting about this audition, versus some of the others, was that the process included a period of coaching with them, after they heard us. We were able to see how they work with us and they were able to see how we work with them.”

Peter Alexander

“We hadn’t met Takács before,” Kebede says. “They were really great people, and we enjoyed it. We ended up liking CU and decided to come (here).”

The Takács generally has anywhere from 10 to 15 applications for the graduate string quartet-in-residence, so the selection process is rigorous. Takács first violinist Ed Dusinberre writes by email while preparing for a tour, “We’re looking for whether a group has a distinctive voice, something to say. We want to feel a passionate level of commitment from everyone in the group. Part of the audition process involves us giving feedback and seeing how they respond: the capacity for growth is at least as important as the level of playing.

“The Ivalas is a dynamic, charismatic group. The passion for what they do was obvious as soon as they started their audition.”

As graduate quartet-in-residence, the Ivalas follow other groups that have become familiar to Boulder audiences and successfully launched their careers, including the Orava, Tesla and Altius quartets. “It’s wonderful for us to see how well (those) previous groups from our program have managed that challenging transition from student to professional quartet,” Dusinberre writes.

The membership of the Ivalas is the definition of diversity. Kebede is of mixed Danish/German and Ethiopian heritage and grew up in Des Moines, Iowa; the other violinist, Dumar, has American and French-Caribbean/African ancestors and grew up in Pennsylvania and Oklahoma. Cellist Pedro Sánchez is Venezuelan, and first learned cello in that country’s famed “El Sistema” music program. Violist Aimée McAnulty is from Southern California, but her mother is from Argentina, where she still has relatives.

As members of the graduate string quartet-in-residence, they receive both individual lessons on their instruments and coaching sessions as a group with the members of the Takács Quartet. It is the coaching sessions, which range from discussion of broad generalities of quartet performance to details of interpretation, that the most important work occurs to transform a very good student quartet into an ensemble ready for a high-level professional career.

Dusinberre explains that “the CU program gives a group a chance to get to grips with their artistic goals, temperaments, how to balance individual expression and unity of musical interpretation. We help groups to think about their unique qualities and how they might position themselves in a community and build an audience.”

In a recent coaching session with Takács second violinist Harumi Rhodes, there was a lot of attention to the interpretive details. When they played the first movement of the Walker Quartet, she suggested that they make the long notes sound “smokier.” In another passage she asked them to try making shared motive “coquettish.”

The differences were extremely subtle, and at the same time they transformed the passages in question. The “coquettish” passage suddenly became more vibrant, to the delight of Rhodes and the four players.

With the first official concert of their residency coming up, you might think that the members of the Ivalas Quartet may find it intimidating to play before a group as knowledgeable and eminent as the Takács. “Of course, it is a little bit,” Kebede admits. 

“But they’re all such wonderful people. When I go to a coaching, I think, ‘They’re going to listen to this, and they’re going to help us make it better.’ We’re so lucky to be able to study with them.

“We love Boulder. We look forward to being here another year after this. It’s just a great honor.”  

ON THE BILL: Ivalas Quartet — Reuben Kebede and Anita Dumar, violin; Aimée McAnulty, viola; Pedro Sánchez, cello
Haydn: String Quartet in D major, op. 71 no. 2 George Walker: String Quartet No. 1
Beethoven: String Quartet in E minor, op. 59 no. 2
7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18, St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church, 2425 Colorado Ave., Boulder. Free and open to the public.