Eastman String Quartet to play at Barack Obama's inauguration

05:00 AM, Jan 19, 2013

The Eastman String Quartet, clockwise from left, violinists, Che Ho Lam and Markiyan Melnychenko, Kelsey Farr on viola and Hyeok Kwon on cello rehearse at the Eastman School of Music last week. The quartet won an open competition at Eastman to perform at the inaugural luncheon on Monday inside the Capitol building. (CARLOS ORTIZ//staff photographer)/

Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

The violins, viola and cello must pass inspection by the Capitol security team. If that goes as it generally does, Che Ho Lam, Markiyan Melnychenko, Kelsey Farr and Hyeok Kwon — calling themselves The Eastman String Quartet — will play Monday’s inauguration of President Barack Obama.

It was U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer who asked the school to provide a quartet for the Presidential Inaugural Luncheon.

It is definitely a great honor that Senator Schumer wanted a quartet from Eastman,” Lam says. “Four years ago I was watching the inauguration live on the Internet at the opposite end of the globe,” Lam says. “It’s actually unbelievable that the four of us will play, at least, for the president.”

The Eastman students will be performing immediately after the swearing-in ceremony, on a second-floor balcony in National Statuary Hall, a vast, semi-circular room connected to the Capitol Rotunda. The quartet will play selections such as the University of Rochester alma mater “The Genesee” while peering down from its second-floor perch — alongside the marble gazes of John Adams, George Washington, Brigham Young, Sacajawea and Will Rogers — as Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, senators, representatives, cabinet officials and former presidents eat lunch.

Phillip Ying of the Eastman’s quartet-in-residence, the Grammy-winning Ying Quartet, has taken on the task of coaching the fledgling group. The Ying Quartet has experience in such political parties, having performed for a 1988 National Endowment for the Arts budget renewal meeting and for a Medal of Arts ceremony at the Clinton White House. “We’ve talked, about making sure that they take this really seriously,” says Ying, who will not be accompanying the quartet. “We’ve discussed musical things, of course, but also things like appropriate dress.”

While the luncheon guests enjoy a menu of steamed lobster, hickory-grilled bison, Hudson Valley apple pie and a Finger Lakes dry Riesling, the quartet’s musical program will back an inauguration theme optimistically named “Faith in America’s Future.” Two of the pieces to be performed, “The Genesee” and Aaron Copland’s “Hoedown,” are arrangements by Eastman master’s degree students Rueben Allen and Michael Conrad. The Eastman String Quartet is also scheduled to play Haydn’s Quartet in G Major, Mozart’s Quartet in C Major, the first and fourth movements of Dvorak’s “American Quartet,” Scott Joplin’s “Country Club Rag” and “America the Beautiful.”

The Eastman String Quartet was to arrive in Washington on Saturday afternoon, with time for a couple of scheduled interviews and sightseeing. “It will be the first visit to D.C. for some of us in the quartet. We’re really excited to visit the Capitol,” Lam says. But the group must leave its instruments with Capitol security for the entire 21/2 days that it is in Washington. “It just shows how serious they are about security,” says violinist Melnychenko; violin cases are familiar to gangster movie fans as a convenient mode of transporting Tommy guns.

Before leaving on Monday night, the quartet will be a part of a busy celebration that’s a bit scaled down from the 2009 event. There are dozens of unofficial balls, but only two official ones, plus a children’s ball and the singing ceremony on the west front of the Capitol. Performers include Katy Perry, Smokey Robinson, Usher, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, John Legend, Beyoncé, Kelly Clarkson, James Taylor and the cast of Glee.

Four years ago, Farr and a group of her Eastman undergrad friends took a road trip to D.C. to see the first inauguration. She was three-quarters of the way back on the crowded mall as Obama gave his speech. “We felt it was such a special time, we decided we had to be there,” she says. “I was so short, I could barely even see the video screens.”

Her view will be much better on Monday. “It’s just unreal,” she says, “that we were chosen to even be in the same room with all these people we’ve seen on TV.”

Schumer is the chairman of the 2013 Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which plays host to the luncheon. His office contacted Eastman in September, requesting a quartet to play the event, and the school announced an open audition. “We thought carefully about whether it had to be an existing quartet,” Ying says. “We decided it would be more fair opening it to any quartet of any Eastman students.”

Lam, Melnychenko, Farr and Kwon knew each other from playing in other chamber groups, and quickly assembled a winner. Ying cited “the strength of them as individual instrumentalists, and the overall energy and communication of the quartet.”

Indeed, each of the four brings an impressive résumé. Farr, a viola player who received her undergraduate degree in 2011, is in her second year of working on her master’s. She played principal viola in the Minnesota Youth and Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphonies. As a member of the Selden String Quartet, she has performed in Maryland, Washington and Idaho.

Lam, a senior, began studying the violin at age 6, toured Europe as a violin and voice soloist with a children’s group at 10 and has appeared both as a soloist and chamber musician at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, the Rachmaninoff Hall at the Moscow Conservatory and the Seoul Arts Centre.

A senior cello student, Kwon has won first prize in a number of competitions, including the Fort Bend Symphony, the Houston Civic Symphony and the Houston Youth Symphony competitions, and has played at the Sarasota Music Festival, the New York String Orchestra Seminar and the National Orchestra Summer Institute.

Melnychenko, a first-year master’s degree student after receiving his undergraduate degree from Eastman, has studied violin since he was 7. He has played in the Sydney Youth Orchestra, toured the South Pacific with the Huntingtower String Orchestra and has performed with the Orchestra Victoria and the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.

The Eastman String Quartet has already played one New York City event for the University of Rochester, and there is a possibility that it will have a life beyond the inauguration. “We’ve already gotten a couple of contacts about playing in the Rochester area, in the community and whatnot,” says Kwon. “It would be sort of unfair if we didn’t give back to the community and the people who supported us going to D.C.— especially Sen. Schumer, who asked Eastman to send a quartet.”

We’ll probably keep playing while we’re at Eastman,” Melnychenko says. “But life as a quartet is very difficult, and only a few get to the point where you can make a living at it.”

Playing at the inauguration of a president who has pledged to make immigration reform a top priority of his second term is of particular relevance to the Eastman String Quartet. While Farr is from Eden Prairie, Minn., the international aspect of the quartet runs very deep. Kwon was born in South Korea. Lam was born and grew up in Hong Kong. Melnychenko was born in Ukraine and grew up in Australia.

I like the way it represents our student body, with not only students who are Americans but who are international,” says Ying, who was born in the U.S. but is of Chinese-American heritage.

Kwon came to America when he was 4 years old, although the moment evidently didn’t make much of an impression. “There are pictures of me dead asleep when I arrived here,” he says. He became a citizen at age 16, at the same time his parents were granted citizenship. Neither Melnychenko nor Lam is a citizen here.

I’ve always been very grateful that America provides such incredible education opportunities,” says Melnychenko, who adds that it’s likely he’ll return to Australia after he gets his master’s.

Lam seems less sure. He was a high school student in Hong Kong when he saw a performance by Eastman professor Charles Castleman. “I was really mesmerized by his playing,” Lam says. “I wanted to come study with him.”

And he did. “It’s a dream of mine to pursue my music here in the states,” Lam says. “Of course, there is always a connection to my hometown back in Hong Kong. But Eastman has really been an eye-opening experience. This has been a life-changing experience for me.”