Four teenage string musicians, three of whom attend Gunn High School, only started playing together last fall, but in February they won a $1,000, first-of-its-kind prize for youth chamber music from San Francisco State University (SFSU).
Known as the Chiaroscuro Quartet, violinists Isabella Costanza, 15, and Tsutomu William Copeland, 17, and cellist Irene Jeong, 16 -- all from Gunn and violist Clara Chan, 18, performed movements by Franz Joseph Haydn and Maurice Ravel. The judges selected the quartet over two other groups.
The quartet's teacher, Susan Bates, expressed excitement about the new SFSU competition, explaining that there is a dearth of opportunities for young chamber musicians to compete.
"Any kind of competition brings a group farther along than if they hadn't competed, I think," Bates said. "It means they have to learn a certain amount of repertoire in a short amount of time."
The Chiaroscuro Quartet is part of Young Chamber Musicians (YCM), a pre-college chamber music program in the South Bay run by Bates.
On Saturday, March 22, the quartet will perform in a public master class with cellist David Finckel at Stent Hall at Menlo School.
In the months leading up to the competition, the four young musicians met with Bates for two-hour rehearsals each week before finally recording and submitting a sample. Selected as a finalist, the group then began to prepare more intensely for the competition, where it faced off against a quartet from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and another Young Chamber Musicians group taught by Bates, the AYE Trio.
Started about six years ago, the Young Chamber Musicians program began as a way for Bates to introduce gifted players ages 14 to 20 to chamber music. It was designed both to provide them exposure to top-flight musicians and accommodate the high school students' demanding schedules.
Today the program has four groups that meet throughout the area and are taught primarily by violist Bates, with assistance from cellist Eric Gaensalen and others. Bates played for 34 years in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and has been a chamber music instructor since 1982, with many years teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, pre-college division.
Young Chamber Musicians also has teamed up with the concert series Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame, a partnership which enables Bates to connect her chamber groups with music professionals for master classes. On March 9, the Chiaroscuro Quartet had played for and listen to the well-known Mirů Quartet from Austin, Texas.
Copeland and Costanza are both new this year to Young Chamber Musicians, though they had experience with chamber music. Costanza also knew Chan from playing together as part of the Palo Alto Chamber Orchestra.
Each musician plays far above age level and knows how to handle his or her instrument, Bates said. Copeland recently competed as a solo violinist at the Yehudi Menuhin Competition in Austin, Texas, against other young musicians from around the world. Chan and Costanza have also both auditioned at the some of the country's top conservatories in the country -- Chan at the Julliard School and Costanza at Julliard, New England Conservatory and Cleveland Institute.
Bates said she hopes to prepare them to perform at that level. But more importantly, whether her students go on to play professionally or not, she wants to provide a "deep experience" with chamber music that they can take beyond the program, she said.
"We try to make them a better musician by the time they leave," she said. "(It's) more about developing musical imagination, and chamber music is a great form for that."
The Chiaroscuro Quartet and the AYE Trio will perform at a free master class with cellist David Finckel on Saturday, March 22, at 6:30 p.m. at Stent Family Hall at Menlo School, 50 Valparaiso Avenue in Atherton. More information about the program has been posted at youngchambermusicians.org.