This String Quartet Was Founded at a Taco Truck… Now It’s at Juilliard

By Louise Frank |

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Argus Quartet (Photo: Ben Gibbs)

In September 2017, violinists Jason Issokson and Clara Kim, violist Dana Kelley, and cellist Joann Whang move to New York to begin a graduate residency at the Juilliard School. The four musicians play together as the Argus Quartet, which formed in one of the most unlikely of places: next to a taco truck.

It was 2013, and Clara and Jason were music teachers at a charter school in Los Angeles. As Clara describes it, the two were in a gas station near located near Argus Drive, enjoying some “delicious burritos” from a food truck, when she asked, “What do you want to do with the rest of your life, Jason? What would be the dream that you would have?”  He replied, “I always wanted to play in a professional chamber music group and had wanted to do so for a long time.” So Clara and Jason brought together like-minded players who shared their sense of adventure, deep admiration for the traditional string quartet canon, and curiosity for contemporary music.

In the four years since they ate those fateful burritos, the Argus Quartet has acquired some impressive experience. The fledgling group received a two-year fellowship to study with the Brentano String Quartet at Yale School of Music. Chamber Music America and the Caramoor Center for Music and Arts, among others, provided grants in support of new commissions. Then, the Kronos Quartet invited the Argus Quartet to participate in Fifty for the Future, an ambitious commissioning project and workshop presented by the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall. For this Argus learned Satellites, a new work by Garth Knox. The members of the Quartet also performed parts of Satellites when they entered the Senior Strings Division of the University of Michigan’s M-Prize Chamber Arts Competition. They brought home first prize.

Tacos La Estrella in Los Angeles (Photo: waltarrrrr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, image cropped)

Argus is spending the summer before going to Juilliard at the Ravinia Festival’s Steans Institute of Music, which provides opportunities to work with a world-class faculty, collaborate with other fellows, and dig deep into major pieces from the string quartet repertoire.  Clara is amazed at the diverse cultural environment of “a festival that has a classical concert one week and Common, the hip hop artist, the next!”

Also this summer, Argus concludes a year-long residency at the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. There, the ensemble will present the premiere of Donald Crockett‘s String Quartet No. 4: Traveling Symphony, which the festival commissioned as part of its mission to expand the repertoire of twenty-first century works for string quartets. Argus will offer a sneak preview of the work when they perform on WFMT’s Impromptu, and say to expect some non-traditional quartet techniques, such as singing, speaking, and plucking their instruments with picks like guitars.

At Juilliard, the Argus Quartet will work closely with the Juilliard String Quartet, studying directly with the esteemed ensemble, and assisting in undergraduate teaching duties.  Upon successful completion of the residency, quartet members are awarded Artist Diplomas in String Quartet Studies at Juilliard.

Violist Dana Kelley appreciates the insight and guidance she and her colleagues receive from such experienced mentors. “Basically they’re not telling us how to make music anymore,” she explained. “They’re telling us how to best be ourselves and really present what makes us unique. So having people like the Juilliard Quartet saying, ‘This is what it’s been like over the course of the Juilliard Quartet’s lifetime. This is how we make programs. This is where we perform. This is the repertoire that we’ve fallen in love with, and this is how we keep playing the same repertoire over thirty years, and make it better, and different, and more interesting for ourselves and also for the audience!’ I think that’s a really important relationship to have with musicians who’ve been there, done that, and are still doing it on the highest level.”

Argus Quartet (Photo: Ben Gibbs)

As the Argus Quartet looks to the future, Jason – who spoke of his dream of a professional quartet back at that L.A. burrito truck – considers the glue that binds this group together, and concludes that it has to do with remaining open to trying new things. “When we have a great rehearsal, it’s when we’re exploring the possibilities that are in the score.  I’m thinking about what’s there and what don’t we know? What do we have instincts about? What do we see in common with each other?  And we start there. I think that the repertory we’ve had the most success with has been where we start from a place of artistic curiosity and then build something out of that.”

Dana, who joined Argus earlier this year, has a similar approach.  “My feeling about how to keep going is remaining open to each other always. You really have to operate as one, but it takes a while to get there. There’s always going to be arguments or disagreements but you recognize each other’s strengths and what you want to do is be able to create a product together that best represents all of us as one unit.”

Clara said she is encouraged that younger generations of musicians are “so excited to discover all of these new things.  They’re really open and I think that the tendency as we get older is to feel like we’ve kind of gone around the racetrack before. I think if I were to try to quantify a basic principal that I would want to give them, it’s to never lose that love for the music that got them there.”

Joann admits life in a quartet can be stressful at times, and finds that the key to a healthy interpersonal dynamic is balance and maintaining a sense of humor. That can include snapping selfies during an interview and posting them to Twitter and Instagram.