Interview with Jonathan Ong, Verona Quartet violinist, for Singapore Chamber Music Festival | The Flying Inkpot
Jointly organised by re:Sound Collective and Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music, the Singapore Chamber Music Festival (SCMF) boasts a line-up of workshops and concerts from top chamber musicians, as well as the Chamber Music Academy for amateur chamber groups.
Aileen Tang has a chat with Singaporean violinist Jonathan Ong, one of the founding members, and first violinist of the internationally acclaimed Verona Quartet (formed 2013), about the art of communication.
The Flying Inkpot: The Verona Quartet champions contemporary music as well as interdisciplinary and collaborative projects. Can you tell us a little about that vision and why it is so essential in the 21st century?
Jonathan Ong: To quote an old saying: “all old music was once new music!” We love performing our bread and butter, the traditional canon of Haydn, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and many more. However, we also believe it is every musician’s privilege and responsibility to work with the composers of today, to commission and discover contemporary works that will hopefully be performed and loved by many generations to come.
On the subject of interdisciplinary projects and collaborations – they have always felt like a natural extension of my quartet’s artistic pursuits. We believe that all artists are essentially storytellers and that we all draw from similar wells of inspiration. However, due to the intense focus that it takes to master an art, it sometimes feels all too easy for the different disciplines to get sectioned off from one another. Musicians in one corner, dancers in another, visual artists on the other end, so on and so forth. There is plenty of good that comes from each genre maintaining a strong identity within its community, but I also think that through interdisciplinary collaboration, we can learn so much from one another, and harness each other’s strengths to create unique performances that speak powerfully to audiences.
TFI: The four of you come from different parts of the world. How did you all come together and what has been the impact of this cosmopolitan DNA on the musical and professional decisions made by the Quartet?
Ong: We met in graduate school; the quartet was formed at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music by four students and chamber music lovers who just wanted to play quartets together. We were extremely fortunate to have some wonderful mentors there who saw something special and encouraged us to consider a serious chamber music career, and it all blossomed from there.
I feel fortunate to be in a cosmopolitan group; everyone brings something different to the table – four unique musical perspectives – and we are constantly challenged to see things from a different angle or in a different light. It’s a great way to learn and grow. Also, when people are from four countries, you get to eat a lot of interesting food; just last year, my quartet tried durian for the first time in Singapore! The responses were very mixed!
As for professional decisions, in all our planning we strive to ensure everyone’s voices and needs are heard and validated. Mutual respect and consideration are essential for the longevity of any group.
TFI: In your opinion, what is the most challenging aspect of playing chamber music? What tips would you give young people who are exploring chamber playing?
Ong: Shuxiang already said it – intonation!! [see TFI’s interview with Yang Shuxiang: https://www.flyinginkpot.com/2024/01/concert-preview-singapore-chamber-music-festival-2024-yang-shuxiang-everything-is-chamber-music/] A famous string quartet musician was once asked during the celebration of his highly decorated career whether he would do the “quartet thing” all over again if given the chance. His response: “Only if I don’t have to do any more intonation work!”
As for advice to young aspiring chamber musicians – just do it! There is no better way to grow than to immerse oneself in chamber playing, and to learn from and inspire one another. Mistakes will be made – it’s an important part of the process – but we learn from them, forgive one another, and move forward for the sake of making beautiful music together. The chamber music repertoire is some of the best music there is (I may be biased), so it is a worthwhile pursuit.
TFI: What do you see as being the essence of chamber music that every musician should be exposed to?
Ong: Playing chamber music is very much about learning the art of communication, and the best communicators are also the best listeners and observers. This is true both in the practice of playing chamber music and also in the rehearsal space where you are constantly giving each other comments and criticism.
When we play, we have to be incredibly attuned to what our musical partners are trying to convey to us in their playing: dynamics, phrasing, nuance, articulation and more. Also of vast importance is body language; for example, the raising of an eyebrow, or the subtle leaning forward to indicate a shift in tempo or emotion. Even just one of these things, when communicated and received successfully, can change the direction of a musical performance on a dime. In the rehearsal room, there is something to be said for delivering and accepting comments with utmost grace and elegance; many groups have fallen apart not because of a lack of skill, but because of an inability to be gracious to one another.
TFI: What is personally your favourite chamber work and why?
The running joke in my quartet is that our favourite chamber work is “the one we are playing at the time”! I find that every couple of months I get hooked on a different work, and I listen to it obsessively on repeat. Lately, that work for me has been Antonin Dvořák’s String Quartet no. 14 in A-flat major, Op. 105. It is one of the great quartets! Dvořák is one of the composers who is able to paint landscapes and imagery effortlessly through his musical writing.
Information about Jonathan Ong’s Quartet Demonstration Workshop on the Art of Communication can be found at https://www.sgchamberfest.org/academy-series/quartet-demonstration-jon-ong and tickets can be purchased at https://scmf.bigtix.io/events/SCMF2405
25 Jan 2024 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music
Conservatory Concert Hall
The participating quartets and pieces they will rehearse are:
Mozart K465 ‘Dissonance’ (1st mvt)
- Viktoria Ivaylova Marinova
- Syu Cheng-Yi
- Caitlin Chin
- Ren Yuxiao
SOTA – Moonlight Quartet
Mozart String Quartet No. 4 in C, K157 (1st mvt)
- Chantal Chan
- Lee Seohyun (Pauline)
- Chang Zi Yi
- Shavaun Toh
For information about the Singapore Chamber Music Festival, please visit https://www.sgchamberfest.org/about-scmf