PODCAST: Conservatory's Leventhal and Quartet Take on Exceptional Challenge

By 
Samantha Burns
November 21, 2017
Sharan Leventhal and Kepler Quartet, standing; Ben Johnston, seated front right.
Image courtesy of the artist

It’s not atypical for classical musicians to spend extraordinary amounts of time learning and perfecting a particular piece of repertoire, but when Kepler Quartet set out to record the complete microtonal string quartets of composer Ben Johnston, it resulted in an enormous effort that lasted more than a decade.

The quartet, consisting of violinists Eric Segnitz and Sharan Leventhal, violist Brek Renzelman, and cellist Karl Lavine, completed the project just in time for Johnston’s 90th birthday in 2016. To be clear, this isn’t your typical classical chamber ensemble music or repertory for string quartet.

“Johnston’s unique microtonal music draws mainly from just intonation, founded upon organic ratios of the overtone series,” says Cristina Schreil in Strings Magazine. Recently, Johnston made an endowed gift to Boston Conservatory at Berklee for a microtonal scholarship, which will be awarded to a Conservatory music student—ensuring future support for new and contemporary classical work at the Conservatory.

On this week's Sounds of Berklee, we're featuring Ben Johnston's 5th quartet, a work that highlights Johnston’s microtonal gymnastics built on just-tuned intervals, performed by Kepler Quartet. The song was recorded as part of a larger project to record Johnston’s entire body of work, a project that took 14 years. Kepler Quartet was formed by Boston Conservatory faculty member Sharan Leventhal.

Produced by Samantha Burns
Engineered by Darcy Davis

Correction: This podcast initially featured another of Johnston's microtonal quartets, and was corrected to reflect String Quartet No. 5 as indicated. We apologize for any confusion.