Interview: David Rohde Interviews Violist Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt

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Is “star viola player” an oxymoron? Not if the viola player – a “violist” as opposed to a violinist – casts her net as wide as Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. Milena, who last appeared in Washington in January and will be back in October, is best known as the violist for the Dover Quartet, which has rapidly become one of the most popular chamber music groups in the country. But she also has collaborations with a startling range of not only world-renowned classical musicians but also the rising breed of “alt-classical” crossover artists and film and television composers.

Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Musical theater fans will be heartened by a rehearsal technique that Milena is popularizing among working musicians and students of singing through rather than talking about instrumental music in order to unify ensemble work. Pop music fans can look to Milena and her contacts among a new generation of conservatory graduates for videos of classical-inflected covers of everything from Queen’s 1975 megahit “Bohemian Rhapsody” to songs by contemporary stars like Adele and Zedd. And Milena loves to share insights from the Dover Quartet’s well-attended gigs – I’ve seen the quartet fill halls in both New York and Washington that are half-filled for more veteran artists – about what really grabs American kids in classical music today. (Hint: Beethoven may be okay, but spiky 20th-century music by Dmitri Shostakovich and other Russians might actually be a better place to start.)

Recently I caught up by phone with Milena from Portland, Oregon, where the Dover Quartet was headlining the Chamber Music Northwest summer festival. Here are excerpts of our conversation.

David: You guys in the Dover Quartet recently joined with a cello-piano team called the Brooklyn Duo to do a cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” And look at the uptake that you’re already getting on this – hundreds of thousands of hits and all these hundreds of comments. Where did you record that, and who arranged the music so effectively?

Milena: Well, Patrick and Marnie Laird of the Brooklyn Duo make covers of all sorts of songs – pop songs, movies, show tunes, rock songs, you name it. That’s kind of their main gig, they put their covers online and they have a huge fan base. But because they’re both classically trained – Patrick, the cellist, went to the Eastman School of Music and Marnie, his wife, the pianist, went to Juilliard – they also want to have more involvement with classical music along with their cover gigs.

So they wanted to start another YouTube channel, bringing classical music to more mainstream audiences, people who don’t usually listen to it but who were seeking out their covers. For this sister channel, Brooklyn Classical, they’re asking their friends who are also successful classical musicians to make recordings of standard classical repertoire and then also do a collaboration with Brooklyn Duo to make a bigger version of one of their covers. So they asked us a year or two ago to record one movement of a classical piece and then do a cover. So we did a cover of “Clarity” by Zedd and we did the first movement of the Dvorak American [the String Quartet No. 12 by Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, written in America].

Patrick had suggested that we eventually do Bohemian Rhapsody and I was all over it, but he didn’t think the timing was right, he wanted to do songs that were trending at that time. But on the third go we finally did Bohemian Rhapsody. He and Marnie do all the arranging but we rehearsed it with them and kind of tweaked things and tried to get things closer to the original, or figure out a way to put our own twist on it. So we recently recorded it in Montreal. We were doing the Beethoven cycle [a performance of all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets over several concerts] there. They came up to Montreal at the end of May and the beginning of June, and for Brooklyn Classical we did the first movement of Beethoven Opus 18 No. 4, and then we did Bohemian Rhapsody with Brooklyn Duo.

They put something in the arrangement of Bohemian Rhapsody that made you guys in the Dover Quartet sound like electric guitars at one point.

Oh, there was one place that I was very excited about because I’ve seen Patrick and another group of his [the “cello rock” band Break of Reality] do these things where they kind of slap the instrument and then slide down the strings. And I said, “We don’t have one of those in this song, so can I do it?” And he said yeah. So added one in myself at a key moment.

Did you add it in? Are you actually an improv or jazz musician at heart?

Well I used to play a lot of jazz. I still have my trombone!

A viola player who also plays trombone? Hold that thought a moment. Can you tell me the internal discussions, including in the car as you guys go touring, around about rock music? Who knows what within the Dover Quartet about rock music and who convinced who to get involved with these covers?

Well, Camden [Dover Quartet cellist Camden Shaw] and I are a little similar, I guess. We’ll listen to, you know, all the normal stuff, Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, I guess we grew up with it – our parents liked that music and we grew up with that stuff. Joel [Dover Quartet first violinist Joel Link] on the other hand, this will come as a shocker, before we recorded “Bohemian Rhapsody,” he had never even heard it before. I don’t know how you can accomplish that just being in the real world and never hearing that song! He’s the one in the group who basically doesn’t know any pop songs or any oldies or anything, like if you mention any song, he’ll only recognize it if it was in a movie he saw. We’re all very different in our music listening.

But you know what, maybe that’s part of the success of the Dover Quartet – that you guys are not all the same in every way.

Probably. I think so. It adds a lot more different flavors to the group.

Can you describe the rehearsal techniques that you have within the Dover Quartet that lead to that amazing unity of sound that people notice at your concerts? I hear you actually sing the instrumental lines in rehearsal?

It’s our favorite rehearsal technique, actually. In fact, I always think that if I could go back and start again and not play an instrument I’d probably want to be a singer, because it would be satisfying to have your instrument be a part of you and have complete connection to it.

Tell me exactly how this rehearsal technique works within the quartet.

Okay, instead of verbalizing things – well I mean we try to verbalize them but it’s much easier if we sing the notes in our parts. Plus what we’re trying to do when we play is to get as close as possible to how we would sing it anyway. We feel that the music speaks a lot better when it’s vocal, it’s human. So we sing, and it helps us understand each other’s ideas better as opposed to using jargon. We could be arguing for hours about using the word “tender” and using the word “sweet.” But in the end if we all sing it the same way, who really cares what words we use?

What other instruments have you played and how did you end up with the viola?

Well, I started on piano when I was really, really young. My dad plays piano so he was teaching me. Now I don’t remember, I was too young, but apparently I said to him stubbornly one day that I wanted to play an instrument that he couldn’t teach me! So my parents acquiesced and they let me pick one and I chose violin and I was about 4½. And then I picked piano back up when I was 7, and I was taking lessons on both every week. Fourth grade was the year that in my elementary school you were allowed to join the orchestra, but I didn’t want to join on violin because everyone was going to be starting their instrument fresh, and I wanted to do that too. So I started playing cello in fourth grade. And I also played timpani!

Then when I moved to Florida, the high school had no orchestra, no string program whatsoever, just a band, and I really wanted to be involved with that, and I was actually excited about the idea about the idea of playing a wind instrument. So I picked up the trombone because I have perfect pitch and if I played a C I didn’t want to be confused! [An inside musical joke – other wind instruments like the trumpet and clarinet are governed by alternate notation systems where, for example, a C on the page comes out as a B-flat in actual sound.] And also the trombone was low and it had slides and I liked that. I took private lessons on trombone from sixth grade to twelfth grade, and actually beyond – when I was at Curtis [the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, where the Dover Quartet was originally formed] one of the students taught me for a while. I played in jazz band and in youth symphony. In fact I was concertmaster [meaning lead violinist] in one youth symphony and I was principal trombone in the other one.

This is wild.

In some ways I considered trombone my principal instrument rather than viola. But the clincher was that one of my brothers used to play cello and he and I were both at the same high school, and we had these two friends who played violin. We were the only four string players in the whole school. And we thought, why not make our own little string program, and make our own string quartet? But we had three violins and a cello, and with my history of trying new instruments – there was even one month where I learned the bassoon just to play one band piece on it – I begged everyone to let me be the one who got to try the viola. And they were happy to let me. The school ordered a viola, and I started playing it in the quartet.

And what really made me a viola player was playing the viola in a string quartet, with that unique role, the way that composers always used the voice of the viola, always having these very interesting harmonic notes, realizing the power that that has. It’s a different kind of power than playing the melody all the time. And it just felt right, it felt like I had found my voice.

I’m trying to figure out in all this, where did you have the time to practice the viola with all of these other musical interests?

That’s a good question! I was really, really busy as a teenager. I had multiple music lesson a week on violin, piano, trombone and youth symphony. On the weekends at a certain point my mom would actually take me, we would fly to Boca Raton or to Miami for extra violin and viola lessons from other teachers. I don’t know when I did my homework. And I really liked doing homework and I didn’t like practicing, so I’m surprised I got any practicing done.

To get where you are today you must have practiced sometime!

Well, somebody pointed out to me that once I started playing the viola, my violin case was closed more often than not, and it was the viola case that was open. So she was the one who pointed out to me that I was drifting in a certain direction.

Having heard you play live and on videos, just the accessing of the C string [the lowest string of the viola with notes a violin can’t reach], you can tell that you just glory in that.

Yeah, I find that very satisfying, playing lower.

Maybe that explains a lot about your affinity for jazz and rock. Do you think that people really shouldn’t even talk about genres? That at some point what you’re doing is just a mashup of all these things, that people should just enjoy music?

Yes, I love that idea. Already with classical music alone, so many people don’t even know what a wide spectrum that is. I mean you could label music as being “different” because it is different, but I think but it’s all under the big umbrella of music. It should cross over more and it should be more connected.

I wish it were because people use the phrase “new audiences” when they’re talking about classical music. But I’m not sure labeling potential audiences that way really works. It’s just a question of putting fannies in the seats.

Yes! We could kind of consider ourselves ambassadors through the centuries. Like why does music from today and music from 300 years ago, why are they both relevant right now?

I understand you and the Dover Quartet are also playing music related to the revival of Twin Peaks. Sort out who proposed that originally, who’s arranging it for you, and where you’re taking that.

A good friend of ours, Daniel Schlosberg, who we actually met at the festival I’m at right now in Portland, at Chamber Music Northwest, he was so obsessed with that series that he wrote his doctoral thesis on the music of Twin Peaks.

Well it’s good music.

It’s great music! And because of him the whole quartet started watching the show, and he was fantasizing about writing this string quartet piece based on that music. He wanted to do something with the music besides just writing a paper about it. Then about a year or two ago there were these inklings of the new season coming out, and we were like, oh man, what better timing to have this piece that could coincide with the launch of this new season after 25 years.

So we reached out to the actual composer of the music, Angelo Badalamenti, and told him our idea that Daniel would not be just arranging this music, he would be using it as inspiration for a new work, using themes and motives from the series. And then we did a little sneak peek of the music in New York. And the composer came, that was so cool! So now here in Portland we’re premiering the whole piece and also arrangements of original songs from the series.

You individually and with the quartet also have all these collaborations coming up next season. You’ve got one in October with the Emerson Quartet here in Washington, you’ve got one with [American violinist] Pamela Frank and friends in New York and also with [Dutch violinist] Janine Jansen at Carnegie Hall. How did all of these come about?

All of these we’re very lucky to be doing, we’re very excited. The Pamela Frank one, she reached out to me and also [cellist] Sharon Robinson and [violinist] Jaime Laredo, they reach out to me every now and then if they need a violist for a concert or two or a tour or something. I’m fortunate that they like playing with me, so they’ll ask me to do something like that every now and then.

As for the one with Janine Jansen, it seems like we’re developing a good relationship with the people at Carnegie Hall. Janine Jansen and [French pianist] Jean-Yves Thibaudet wanted to play [at Carnegie Hall in January 2018] the concerto by Ernest Chausson which is for violin, piano and string quartet. I’m not sure exactly how it all worked out but I’m guessing that the people at Carnegie Hall suggested us and she went along with it, so we’re really stoked to be playing that with her.

And then with the Emerson, we met Joseph Kalichstein [of the Kennedy Center’s Fortas Chamber Music Series] years ago when we were young artists, basically students at the La Jolla Summerfest. He told me when I played with him a month ago that he hadn’t forgotten that concert. It was very touching and surprising to me because I remember that concert! It was so humid, it was very uncomfortable playing conditions, but he apparently really liked it and remembered it, so I guess he was the one who suggested us when he gave the Kennedy Center this ”2-4-6-8” idea – a concert with a duo, a quartet, a sextet, and an octet. All of these things we’re just happy to be along for the ride. We just got lucky to be doing these.

I’ll name some composers. You tell me what appeals about them to you and what you believe will appeal to new hearers of that music when you perform it. Let’s start with Brahms, which chamber musicians program a lot.

Well with Brahms, first I think of Schumann. Something special about Schumann is how human every moment is. With Brahms it’s the same focus but almost otherworldly. It’s like on a bigger spectrum. Sometimes the emotions are so mixed together, I feel things that I couldn’t necessarily feel diluted as just one emotion, it has to be a big mixture of emotions. It just makes me think about humanity or the cosmos or something bigger.

Is there a big difference between early Brahms and late Brahms?

They are different but you can just feel that it’s the same person. It seems obvious because it’s later, but I would say there’s more wisdom, you feel the age in the later works. And you feel that depth of emotion. But there’s so much fresh and raw emotion in the early stuff, and innocence especially in the B-flat sextet [which is on the program for Milena’s concert in New York with Pamela Frank in May 2018]. And then later you still have all of that but there’s another layer to it.

Tell me about the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. It’s so core to a string quartet. Why should people listen to that music and what does it do to people?

Oh man, this is really interesting to me, but Shostakovich was my favorite composer from when I was 12 years old pretty much until recently, when now I call him one of my favorites because now Beethoven is also my “favorite” and Brahms is also my “favorite.”

The first piece I ever heard of his, I was in an orchestra and we were playing his tenth symphony and I just fell head over heels for this music. And also my cousins who weren’t involved in music, they also liked it more when I played Shostakovich rather than Mozart. With Shostakovich especially in the faster-paced and louder movements it’s so visceral, the human emotions are just instantly palpable. That’s what drove me to it.

And then when I got older all the other aspects of it, from the gorgeous slow movements, his harmonies whether they be simple or crunchy, just the amount of emotion in each note. And then also his voice being in every single thing he wrote, his little motives that give it his signature, his flavor. I think for someone who’s never heard it before, it’s something they can quickly fall in love with.

You mentioned all of that without mentioning the name of Joseph Stalin [who periodically criticized or censored Shostakovich’s music or had his henchmen do it]. Is that by design? That stuff doesn’t matter to read in the program notes before you hear it?

Well no, all that obviously shaped him as a person. But it’s also fascinating that without even talking about it, because of it being there, of course it has to do with how he wrote his music. But you can feel that without even knowing, although knowing it enhances it.

Tell me about the music of [Pulitzer Prize-winning contemporary composer] Caroline Shaw. Do you know her?

Yeah, we all know her. We played with her before, because when Dumbarton Oaks commissioned a piece of hers for us, when we prepared it we also played a Mozart quintet with her as second viola. She is so sweet, down to earth, and incredibly talented. Her music is very accessible but also has her very clear and unique voice.

And all audiences, especially purely classical music audiences, really love her music. That’s saying something because a lot of these old-school, die-hard classical music fans will say things like they don’t like modern music. We once played a concert of Mozart, Dvorak and Shostakovich, and an audience member came up to us and said, “I love the Mozart. I normally don’t really like atonal stuff like Dvorak and Shostakovich, but today I did.” And I thought, “Oh my gosh, if she thinks Dvorak is atonal, what’s the world coming to?” Anyway, people like Caroline’s music all across the board.

I think one thing that people are afraid of when they go to a quote-unquote classical music concert is an academic atmosphere. They’re afraid they’re going to have to read a whole lot of background or they’re going to be quizzed about it or something.

Yeah.

But you and Camden in the Dover Quartet have this knack of getting up and verbally telling people briefly and entertainingly what to listen for rather than presenting a whole big written thesis to people. Is that something you plan? Is that something you just naturally know how to do?

It used to be very daunting. When we first started performing, every now and then someone would ask us to speak a little bit to the audience, and nothing would make me more nervous. But once we started doing it a few times, not only did I realize that it made the whole experience seem better and more intimate with the audience, it just seemed like we actually did connect with them more. It actually helps them be more invested in the piece, and strangely it helps us be more invested in the performance of the piece, because everything we just said to the audience, even more so we want to show them through our playing.

You now have a trailer out for a documentary on the Dover Quartet which actually opens with the beginning of your day. Is that something that’s finished? Did people follow you around with cameras or is that just starting now?

It’s not quite finished yet. We’re still finalizing raising some more funds. But we have three more video shoots scheduled so far. They’ve been following us around since, man, since November, I believe, about eight months or so.

We’re super-excited about the final product. This isn’t supposed to be geared to mainly classical music audiences. This is supposed to be geared to just people who are curious about us, and to really show why we do what we do, that it’s not easy, that it’s not always glamorous and fun. We talk about breakups within a quartet, we talk about fighting in rehearsal, the difficulty of always traveling with the same people, getting your hotel rooms further apart, the nitty-gritty stuff. It’s almost like a reality show in a way! But we just want to show people why what we do is relatable to any person regardless of whether or not they’ve ever listened to the music we play or played an instrument.

I want to ask about some of your mentors. Tell me who Michael Tree is and what he has meant to you.

Michael Tree was the violist of the Guarneri Quartet. I believe it existed for 45 years, and they’re probably our biggest role models as a quartet. We adore them and we listen to their recordings all the time. He was also my private teacher at Curtis for five years. I had two private teachers at Curtis and I split them evenly. The other was Roberto Diaz, who’s the president of the school and who has a solo career and who has also been principal viola of multiple orchestras, including the Philadelphia Orchestra. It was a great balance to have a soloist-slash-orchestra player as one teacher and a chamber musician as my other main teacher, so I felt extremely fortunate to have that balance.

But Michael Tree is not only one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met, but also one of the most demanding teachers I’ve ever had. He is so picky. I remember my very first lesson with him. I had a couple of pieces prepared to play, and we only got through the first line of the first piece in one hour.

Because of what? Intonation issues, interpretive issues?

Maybe, but maybe also articulation, accenting, phrasing, how exactly to shape each and every note, not having any squeak or slide between notes that you didn’t intend for a musical purpose, all sorts of things. He’s really a perfectionist. I hear his voice in my head a lot when I’m working on things. But in one aspect we’re completely opposite, which is that he writes so many notes in his parts. And I write almost nothing in my part. I like to have a clean slate and just be able to react in the moment, I like to change fingerings and bowings depending on the situation in the moment. But he writes in almost every single fingering and bowing, he’s so meticulous I almost cannot read his parts!

Well, you are a teacher too now. Tell me about that.

Oh, that’s been really fun. And hard. And interesting.

Tell me where you teach, how that happened, and how it’s going.

The Dover Quartet was asked to be in residence at Northwestern University. It’s a part-time residency. The first year we went there 12 times throughout the year. We give private coaching to a handful of chamber groups, everything from a duo to a sextet. They all have strings in them. Some of them even have piano or winds in them. We also give master classes. And we do open rehearsals and we also do three concerts a year. The first year it was tricky with our tour schedule and class schedules to do it that way. This year we tweaked it so it’s six visits but each time it’s longer. And that’s also the plan for next year, which will be our third year there.

And it’s been so fun coaching chamber music. It’s almost like having a quartet rehearsal but not playing in the group. We get to talk about musical ideas. A good amount of the time we do talk about technical things, because how to technically bring out the emotion is a very important thing to get used to knowing. Also we have to learn to verbalize a little bit more, but actually I still do sing a lot when I teach. It’s very similar to our rehearsals, but kind of bringing the students into our thought process, into our world.

So you do bring it up with them, the idea of singing in rehearsal?

Well we in the quartet are all very comfortable with it now, but a lot of the students, if I ask them to sing how they hear it, half of them are too shy to do so. And I have to tell them, if you’re too shy to sing it, then you’re never going to play it how you feel, because you’re too shy to show you feel!

I also understand that you have a new album coming out soon that’s completely different than your first album called Tribute, is that right?

Yes. It’s called Voices of Defiance with three pieces written right around or during World War II and each composer had a different experience of those events with different outcomes. So the one that was written in 1943 is by a composer named Viktor Ullmann, who was a Czech composer interned at the propaganda camp Theresienstadt. He wrote music while he was there just on whatever materials he could find, scraps of toilet paper or whatnot. One day when he was there, he was being put onto a train to another camp, and a friend of his asked him to leave all his music behind with him. So he did, he got on a train, the train took him to Auschwitz and the very next day he was gassed. We are so lucky that his friend kept his music. And it’s a beautiful piece, quartet number 3, by Viktor Ullmann.

The next piece on the album was written in 1944 by Shostakovich, who was at an artist retreat. He was surrounded by his close friends, many of them were Polish Jewish composers and that influence is really prevalent in that quartet. It’s just a masterpiece and a devastating piece. The last piece in the album was written in 1945 by a Polish Jewish composer named Simon Laks, who survived Auschwitz because he had the strange fortune to be made director of the prisoners’ orchestra there. They kept him alive to play German marches while all of his friends were being marched to the gas chambers. He had a very warped experience of music in general, and he wrote this book that we all read in the quartet before we recorded the quartet called Music of Another World where he talks about ending up hating music, he thought of it as torturous, he wasn’t allowed to play any other music. He was transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau and then they liberated the camp, and when he left Dachau he wrote this quartet that was based on Polish folk songs that he hadn’t been able to play or listen to for years. And in general the piece is quite light-hearted and uplifting, in a way it’s a little perverse although the second movement is incredibly emotional, it’s just gorgeous.

How about playing the Beethoven late quartets, which are notorious for string quartets. Where do you get the energy to do that, or is it different than any other music that you play?

Playing late Beethoven is definitely different than anything else we play, first of all from a technical standpoint. There’s a lot of awkward music out there, but [late Beethoven] definitely is awkward. It’s funny, we talk about this as a quartet, and Joel thinks the earlier Beethoven quartets for him on first violin in general are more challenging. And in some ways as a group they are, there’s kind of a Swiss-watch-like precision that needs to go on in a lot of them.

But for the inner voices, I think for myself and Bryan [Dover Quartet second violinist Bryan Lee], as they get later they get more and more difficult because – it might have to do with the fact that he was deaf, but I don’t think so – I think it has to do with the famous quote of Beethoven which was “I care nothing for you and your limited instruments!” Basically, when Beethoven puts the melody in the first violin and the bass line in the cello, all the leftover stuff that needs to be there, he puts in the inner voices regardless of which register or how much jumping around you have to do. It’s almost impossible to make it sound how it looks on the page, it’s really weird, it’s so strange how he writes some of those figures.

Also musically it’s its own world, it’s its own complete language, he completely breaks apart the classical structures that he tries to follow in the first six quartets, Opus 18, and then was gradually adventuring to new adventures in the middle quartets and then in the late quartets he completely shatters it. A lot of it is almost stream of consciousness, but it’s a Beethoven stream of consciousness.

Well not only do you play everything Beethoven wrote for string quartet, but looking at the Dover Quartet’s schedule, it looks like you just inhale music, you never say no to anything.

We’re starting to a little bit.

I don’t mean performance-wise, you want to take the gigs, I mean all the music you have to actually learn.

Well I don’t know, yeah on the one hand, when it comes to collaborations it’s open ended. But with the Schumann quartets we just performed in Portland, we’re actually recording that too in a week and a half!

You guys have the brain space for all of this music

Sometimes it doesn’t feel like it, it’s a little overwhelming. Hopefully next season we’ll feel a little more grounded.

And on that point, I’ll let you get back to your schedule. Thank you, Milena!

Milena Pajaro-van de Stadt and the Dover Quartet will appear next in Washington in the newly renovated Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on October 12, 2017, in a concert called “2-4-6-8! A Chamber Music Celebration by the Numbers” together with the Emerson String Quartet. For the Dover Quartet’s complete upcoming global schedule, see their concert calendar. For tickets to their Kennedy Center performance, purchase them online.

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