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[Herald Interview] Heading toward 20th anniversary, Novus String Quartet continues to stay current

Leading Korean chamber act to present "British Night" at Seoul Arts Center on March 2

Feb. 27, 2024 - 18:41 By Park Ga-young
(From left) Members of the Novus String Quartet -- violinists Kim Jae-young and Kim Young-uk, violist Kim Kyu-hyun and cellist Lee Won-hae -- pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Nine years ago this month, the Novus String Quartet was featured in The Korea Herald’s “Up and Coming” series. Nearly a decade later, they continue to evolve.

“At that time, we were just making the transition from the mixed life of a student and a performer into a professional performer. Now we are professional performers who also pursue teaching careers,” violinist Kim Jae-young, the leader of the quartet, told The Korea Herald during an interview on Monday. Kim and all other members -- violinist Kim Young-uk, violist Kim Kyu-hyun and cellist Lee Won-hae teach at the Korea National University of Arts (K-Arts).

During an interview that took place at the K-Arts Seocho-dong Campus, each member clearly showed that the team's uniqueness does not stem solely from the members' agreeability with each other. They offered different opinions on their favorite composers, the idea of passing down their musical career to their children and the idea of continuing the team for more than 50 years like the Emerson String Quartet.

For instance, the leader picked Brahms as his favorite composer, while Kim Kyu-hyun picked Shostakovich’s music as his favorite. Kim Young-uk finds the music he feels he needs to work on more attractive.

Kim Young-uk said he’s reluctant to pass down the musical career to his children, knowing how difficult it is, while Kim Kyu-hyun, whose wife is also a musician, is willing to teach music to see if their child is musically gifted.

Despite their different personalities, one thing is clear -- they share a profound love for chamber music.

Kim Jae-young founded the quartet at K-Arts in 2007 with friends who shared a love for chamber music.

"I think chamber music inherently provides a unique avenue - perhaps the only way - for performers to indirectly experience the profound thoughts that reside within composers' innermost beings, within the composers' lives," Kim Young-uk, the violinist, said about the reason for his dedication to the chamber music.

The previous interview with The Korea Herald in 2015 took place after the quartet won the top prize at the prestigious Mozart String Quartet Competition in Austria in 2014. Even before the 2014 win, the quartet had won several prizes and awards, including the second prize at ARD held in Germany.

“We were very happy but thought we finally had what we deserved (when winning the top prize, not the second prize),” he recalled. "At that time, four Asian guys in a quartet probably looked unfamiliar."

It was rare to see a string quartet back then, but now there are several others who began after Novus' success.

(From left) Members of the Novus String Quartet -- violinist Kim Jae-young, cellist Lee Won-hae, violist Kim Kyu-hyun and violinist Kim Young-uk -- pose for photos during an interview with The Korea Herald on Monday. (Im Se-jun/The Korea Herald)

Novus, Latin for "new," "fresh" and “extraordinary,” continues to be the quartet’s identity as much as their identity as an all-male ensemble, a characteristic they were reluctant to change while going through changes of two members.

The last four years have been part of their endeavors to remain current.

The quartet undertook a series of remarkable challenges, performing the entire string quartet of Mendelssohn in 2020, followed by a four-day run of Shostakovich in 2021, of Brahms in 2022 and of Beethoven from August 2022 to 2023.

On March 2, the Novus String Quartet will present a program titled "British Night" dedicated to British composers Edward Elgar, William Walton and Benjamin Britten. For the concert, which will mark the quartet's return to the Concert Hall of Seoul Arts Center, they will perform Elga’s String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 83, Walton’s String Quartet in A Minor (1947), Britten’s Three Divertimenti for String Quartet and String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36.

They will bring the same program to Asia Culture Center in Gwangju on March 6.

When asked about their future plans, quartet leader Kim Jae-young said they first want to see what it feels like to celebrate their 20th year, which will be in 2027.

“We’re thinking about a big project to commemorate our 20th anniversary, something meaningful, and (then) we might have a break for a year,” he said. “First, I want to know how it feels to go beyond 20 years and then we will plan for the future,” he added.

For the time being, the quartet will continue performing in Korea and overseas, including at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany, which will be their debut there, and in Brugg, Switzerland in April, the Marvao International Music Festival in Portugal in July and Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in November.

The team, the Korean musicians most frequently invited to perform at the Wigmore Hall in London and served as its artist in residence in the 2022/23 season, is set to return to the hall in April.

"As a musician, the team and I strive not to forget the meaning of 'Novus.' We have to keep current as artists and I believe, in that way, we're going forward," leader Kim said.