Castalian String Quartet brings classic European compositions to Hancher

As part of the University of Iowa String Quartet Residency Program, the Castalian String Quartet will perform at Hancher.


It only takes four performers from the Castalian String Quartet to fill the stage. Balancing two violins, a viola and a cello, the quartet tames chaos with skill and practice.

The Castalian String Quartet will perform at the Hancher Auditorium on February 20 at 3 p.m. as part of the University of Iowa String Quartet Residency Program, which brings together nationally recognized professional string quartets for performances, master classes and seminars.

Elizabeth Oakes, manager of the UI String Quartet residency program, said she wanted to give students the opportunity to learn from professionals in the music field. She explained that allowing students to work with critically acclaimed European musicians provides a direct link to the genesis of these classic works.

“I built the program with this idea that artists would be on campus for long periods of time, so they could do this kind of deep work with students,” Oakes said.

Over the past year, the UI Residency Program has taken an online format due to COVID-19, allowing groups to perform in person at a later date. The Castalian String Quartet is one such group, having already established links with some university students.

“It’s exciting because a number of my students had online experiences with Castalian last year, and we’re finally bringing them to campus this year,” Oakes said.

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Since its foundation in 2011, the Castalian String Quartet has consisted of various members from all over Europe, including Finland and the UK. The group’s name is inspired by the Castalian spring in the ancient city of Delphi. The Greek myth surrounding the spring says that whoever drinks the water receives poetic inspiration. Current members are Sini Simonen and Daniel Roberts on violin, Ruth Gibson on viola and Christopher Graves on cello.

The group began by participating in music competitions, first nationally and then internationally, to gain recognition in the classical music industry. Eventually, the group was accepted into a London-based British institution called the Young Classical Artists Trust, which helped the quartet grow as a group.

Throughout their journey to success, Roberts explained that there were unique struggles. Balancing financial stability with the desire to practice and work with his colleagues was difficult, but his motivation to achieve his goals helped him to continue to progress.

“You’re learning and your eyes are wide open,” Roberts said. “You dream of the possibilities, and that balances it all out.”

Violinist Simonen said that through time and practice with her musical partners, the four have formed a deep and personal relationship.

“In a string quartet, do you have a very special bond with your colleagues,” Simonen said. “The clichés that people say are that you’re sort of married to three other people and it’s not really a marriage, but it’s kind of a very deep, professional, musical and personal connection.”

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The musicians have faced some challenges since growing as a band, including struggling to keep their vocals authentic and struggling to wear their hearts on their sleeves when performing, Roberts and Simonen said.

Part of that authenticity comes with personal identity. Simonen, who grew up in Finland, said she was looking forward to performing the piece “Voces intimae”, written by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, which reflects her culture.

“[The piece] is incredibly connected to Finland’s identity as a country because, you know, it was at a time of independence struggles,” Simonen said. “Much of his music is inspired by ancient Finnish mythology.”

In addition to the interpretation of “Voces intimae”, the quartet will also perform Mozart’s “Quartet in D minor” and Fanny Mendelssohn’s “Quartet in D minor”.String Quartet in E flat major. Above all, the group is looking forward to an in-person performance with a music-loving audience.

“You feel like you’ve really had that connection and hopefully given something to the students,” Roberts said. “They definitely give us something.”

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