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Vertex performs folk traditions of Dvorák and Florence Price

The string quartet presents African American and Czech folk cultural music this Sunday at St. Albert United Church
Vertex String Quartet is playing a concert at St. Albert United Church on Sunday, May 5. From left to right, the musicians are Christina Barry, Lydia Metzger, Jenna Gensler and Melissa Lank.

In mathematics, a vertex is a point where two or more lines, curves or edges meet or intersect. It’s also the moniker of a new string quartet performing under the umbrella of St. Albert Chamber Music Society. 

“In the original group, we were four musicians who were principals with the Edmonton Youth Orchestra. We decided to form a quartet, and since our backgrounds were in the sciences and engineering, we thought Vertex String Quartet was cool,” said violist Jenna Gensler.   

Along with Gensler, the original musicians were cellist Adam Caufield and violinists Rafael Piesiur and Holly Christiani. Today Gensler is the only founding member left. The current lineup also includes cellist Melissa Lank and violinists Christina Barry and Lydia Metzger. 

“What sets us apart is we’re an emerging quartet, and we enjoy performing music we think the audience will enjoy. We like to expose the audience to new music as well as the classics. We also do more concerts. Most string quartets do gig performances such as weddings and celebrations. We do professional concerts, and we’ve recorded sessions that come our way,” Gensler said. 

Vertex’s program is composed of two major works: Florence Price’s String Quartet No. 2 in A minor and Antonín Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major

Little is known in these parts about Florence Price, an American composer who composed over 300 works including four symphonies, four concertos, a series of choral works, art songs and chamber music.  She was an active composer between 1899 and 1952. But she had two big challenges to overcome. 

“She had a lot of adversity in making her name. She wasn’t just a female. She was African-American and that added barriers to getting her music published and played. As an all-female group, we feel really honoured to play her music,” said Gensler. 

Although slavery had been abolished by the time Price was born, racism and discrimination created such iron-clad societal and financial barriers it is difficult to fathom how she rose above it. Price eventually made history as the first African American woman to have her music performed by a major symphony orchestra in 1933. 

The score for Price’s String Quartet No. 2 contains four movements and runs 25 minutes. 

“There’s lots of African-American style traditional music and 20th century American harmonies. In the third movement, there’s African body-slapping and foot-stomping. It’s very happy, happy. It makes you want to jump out of your seat. A lot of her harmonies have dissonance, but they’re still harmonic. And the fourth movement is fairly classical and has a dramatic ending.”  

The program’s second half is devoted to Dvorák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F Major.  The Czech composer had acquired a degree of fame throughout Europe, and in 1892, he became director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. 

His reputation spread and during a summer vacation, he visited Spillville, Iowa where a large Czech community of immigrants had settled. While travelling through Iowa’s beautiful countryside, he was inspired to write the string quartet, later affectionately dubbed the "American Quartet." 

“It definitely has elements of black spirituals and of America as an emerging culture. But it’s mostly Bohemian Slavic. That’s what makes it appealing to everyone.” 

Gensler feels a special kinship to Dvorák’s music. 

“It’s a beautifully lyrical melody. It’s nostalgic and transcends cultural boundaries. It’s romantic and inspires people’s souls. Paired with the music of Price, it tells her story. It, too, is beautiful. You will hear ethnic African music. It’s a blast from the past — music popularized on plantations and spirituals that are still popular today. We hope the music will engage the audience and other musicians to listen to her music and play it.” 

The concert takes place Sunday, May 5 at 3 p.m. at St. Albert United Church, 20 Green Grove Dr. Tickets are $15 to $35 in person at Musée Heritage Museum or online at Eventbrite. 

Anna Borowiecki

About the Author: Anna Borowiecki

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