Making a special connection

The Prague-based Bennewitz Quartet string ensemble makes its Israeli debut.

Bennewitz Quartet 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bennewitz Quartet 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The much-lauded Bennewitz Quartet from Prague is about to make its Israeli debut, performing three concerts in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. The quartet, which includes violinists Jiri Nemecek and Stepan Jezek, violist Jiri Pinkas and cellist Stepan Dolezal (all aged 31 – 35), was formed in 1998.
“We started as friends, playing together almost for fun, and our ensemble got finally settled in 2001,” says Jezek in a phone interview on the eve the ensemble’s Israeli tour. “After graduating from the Music Academy in Prague, we had an opportunity to study for two years in Madrid with Rainer Schmidt from the Hagen Quartet, and it became obvious that it was going to last. We went through some difficult times together, and we saw that we could survive as a team.”
What are the criteria for choosing members for a quartet?
Jezek: It is not simple. If the idea is playing nice music with pleasant people, you can soon find that they are not professional enough or don’t share your musical ideas. Or the other way round – if you want to play with only top professional artists, you may realize in half a year that you are simply unable to cope with these people anymore. So I see it as a little miracle that chamber ensembles like ours are able to survive. This is really difficult because over the years, we change, we have families. It’s unpopular to say, but the fact that we are an all-male ensemble probably makes things easier because married women have to devote more time to their children than men would, and sometimes they even lose their motivation to continue with their music careers, which stand in the way of a normal family’s evolution.
How do you decide what to play?
Jezek: When we started, we didn’t have the slightest idea of what a string quartet was about. We thought it was adventurous to choose pieces that were difficult or that somebody told us were difficult, and we felt very proud of ourselves. Only after going to Madrid to study with Rainer Schmidt did we realize that this was not the way to do things.
But we cannot sit on one kind of repertoire because the quartet members differ very much in what we find interesting to play. As a solution, we have decided that we will make some room for everyone. Every member is free to bring his ideas, and then we discuss them.
So what are the criteria in your choice of repertoire?
Jezek: It is important to find out what repertoire connects with us personally because that is the only chance of bringing some quality that is beyond the normal production. With so many excellent quartets, musicians and concerts around, being very good is not enough – you have to bring something on top of that. The only chance is bringing a special connection to the repertoire you play. You can call it love; and love for what you play helps a lot. But on the other hand, we are professionals, and that means we have to find very personal and intimate ways of treating almost any piece we come across.
We perform at least one Czech piece in every program. Although I do not really believe that we Czechs are the best ones to play this music, we know that it is what audiences expect from a Czech ensemble, and that is understandable.
Judging by your international success, the quartet is special. How do you see yourselves?
Jezek: That is a delicate question, so I’d better start with an example. We played a Schubert quartet in Prague, and it was critiqued as being a very cold, German-like performance, which goes back to our studies, since we studied with Germanspeaking teachers. A week later we played the same piece in Germany, and the reviews said it was a very warm, Czech-like performance. So what people find special is very subjective. But still, from my point of view, the special aspect might be that we come from a strong music tradition, which is rather intuitive. It puts some warmth and beautiful playing in the first place, but at the same time what we learned during our studies was more about the analysis of the piece and, based on that, finding the beauty of a particular piece. I think it is this combination of the intuitive approach and analytical background that might be interesting and special. For some people, or at least for me!
The Bennewitz Quartet performs quartets by Haydn, Janacek and Smetana on March 22 at the YMCA Auditorium in Jerusalem; March 24 at Rappoport Hall in Haifa; and March 25 at the Einav Cultural Center in Tel Aviv. The concerts start at 8:30 p.m.