First-year students complete a winter term tour, bridging cultures along the way.
It’s been a whirlwind ride that landed the Kulas String Quartet in the embassies of Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia for enthusiastically received performances in January.
The four musicians, all first-year students at Oberlin, formulated plans for a winter term tour shortly after connecting during orientation week on campus just four months earlier.
“We decided to sight-read string quartets together as a way to get to know each other,” recalls Lourdes de la Peña, a cello student from northern Virginia. “We did that for two and a half hours each day for a week.”
When it came time for fall semester ensemble assignments, they were the rare first-year students to show up as a fully formed unit, which they dubbed in honor of the Oberlin recital hall that bears the same name.
Financial support from Oberlin's Flint Initiative Grant program enabled them to round out a 12-date itinerary that included performances at the three embassies in Washington, D.C., the Inter-American Defense Board, and the District of Columbia Public Library, as well as D.C.-area retirement homes, an elementary school, a homeless shelter, and other nonprofits.
At each embassy, they performed works by composers hailing from the host nation—which in some cases necessitated a rather steep learning curve. In December 2019, the Brazilian Embassy engaged a young Brazilian-born composer, Gustavo Brinholi, to provide a piece that would be performed the following month. The composer met with an enthusiastic response from de la Peña when he suggested writing a new work for them mere weeks before the scheduled performance.
“She immediately accepted,” Brinholi later said, “and I have to say this promptitude was very important, bringing me even more confidence and joy to compose.”
In advance of the performances, the quartet was coached by former teachers of de la Peña, violinist Natalie Hsieh, and violist Jasper de Boor, all of whom were raised around the Beltway. (First violinist Matt Cone calls Buffalo home.)
Not surprisingly, effusive thanks followed them everywhere they went.
“The fresh, vibrant way of playing of Kulas Quartet comes not only because they are young, but certainly has to do with their love and discipline regarding the music,” Brinholi says. “It is what brings their technique to a very high level. The fact that they were already touring in the last 15 days almost nonstop made everything more special.”
Sebastián Di Luca, the Argentine Embassy’s head of cultural affairs and public diplomacy, echoed Brinholi’s sentiments in a letter of thanks to Dean of the Conservatory William Quillen.
“The ensemble did excellent research to gather the most recognized Argentine musicians, and they played with solid professionalism,” Di Luca wrote. “The presence of young artists like Lourdes de la Peña, Matt Cone, Natalie Hsieh, and Jasper de Boor in events of the Embassy is an important contribution to build stronger relationships between Argentina and the United States, as well as to promote the best of our country's culture.”
The quartet also sensed the impact of its music in more personal ways.
“The homeless shelter was one of the most touching experiences,” says de la Peña, describing the calming effect their playing had on residents. “Your teachers always tell you that music is powerful, but I think you have to experience it firsthand to truly know.”