String quartets don’t typically bring to mind the sounds of banjos or mandolins or songs about whiskey.
But Invoke, the new young professional string quartet in residence in the Butler School of Music, isn’t your typical string quartet. Sure, they can play a repertoire of Brahms or Schubert chamber music, but in the vein of pioneering ensembles like the Kronos Quartet, they’re looking beyond the traditional European canon. They’re learning new instruments and writing their own music, which is heavily influenced by American composers like Aaron Copland and Peter Schickele.
“We were interested in American music,” said violist Karl Mitze. “We didn’t want to be another quartet just playing Beethoven and Haydn. There are a lot of groups our age doing that very successfully. But we didn’t see ourselves as one of them. It wasn’t the path we wanted.”
The musicians were all students at the University of Maryland when they met, and they began playing together while they were in Italy over a summer as part of a music festival. They performed in some piano quintet readings as part of the festival and were busking in the streets as a quartet in their spare time. Something about the chemistry between them just worked. When they returned to Maryland, violinist Zach Matteson sent a Facebook message to the group to see if they wanted to continue playing together, and they began collaborating from there.
Mitze and violinist Nick Montopoli talked about using the skills of all the quartet’s members to make something new, to see if “string quartet” could transcend instrumentation. So Montopoli honed his banjo skills and Mitze took up the mandolin, and they began writing new songs that blended these new instruments with their traditional violin, viola and cello instruments.
“We are still, at heart, an acoustic chamber group,” Montopoli said. “That’s how we formed, and that’s what our training is. We are still an acoustic band, a folk band, a classical string quartet—we’re an acoustic ensemble. That’s the core of what our sound is in all the different things that we do.”
“Whether we’re telling stories about pieces at concerts or telling a story through the piece, everything we do stems from a love of narrative, a love for story,” said cellist Geoff Manyin.
“These guys, because they’ve come up in a more organic way, because they’re open to more genres, because they’ve taught themselves how to play different instruments and they sing—their excellence is in the way that they bring that broader repertory to life,” said Butler School of Music Director Mary Ellen Poole.
This fall was their first semester in the Butler School of Music’s young professional string quartet program, which takes one advanced pre-professional ensemble every two years to study with the Miró Quartet for a two-year residency. As part of the program, Invoke receives weekly coaching and private study with Miró members, prepares for competitions, performs with the Symphony Orchestra and the New Music Ensemble and receives comprehensive guidance for career management, networking and organization.
The Miró Quartet has been working with Invoke to build a mission statement and five- and 10-year plans and to set goals. Matteson said that the conversations they’ve had about the nuts and bolts of operating as a unit—how to plan a program, how to set a rehearsal timeline, how to make decisions as a group—has been a “mind-blowing” experience
“This is what being professional is like. You have a vision, you have a goal, you have a timeline,” said Miró violist John Largess. “We want our students to feel like they’re not afraid of the real world, that they know how to make what they want to have happen in their lives happen in the real world—as opposed to looking to somebody else to do it.”
While the group has actively embraced their time in the Butler School of Music—playing with the UT Orchestra, performing as part of a semester-long series on Brahms chamber music, playing new works commissioned for their group, making plans to record later this year—they’ve embraced Austin as well. They’ve learned to barbecue brisket, and they’re taking full advantage of all the tacos Austin has to offer.
While Mitze says they’re acclimating well, Matteson goes a step further: “Texas is our spiritual home.”