A Venerated Path
It is rare to find one that has formed; it’s then infinitesimally rare to find one that prospers. What sounds mysteriously like the ongoing search for life on other planets is also the reality faced by musicians who come together hoping to forge a successful string quartet. Introducing the Soto String Quartet, an ensemble comprised of four Chicago-based Venezuelan string players who have embarked upon this venerated path: violinists Jesús Linárez and Gabriela Lara (both age 22), violist Pedro Pablo Mendez (age 26) and cellist Lidanys Graterol (age 20). All four are Affiliate Artists at the city’s Guarneri Hall and are coached and mentored by its Artistic Director, Stefan Hersh.
The quartet, named after Venezuelan artist and sculptor Jesús Rafael Soto (1923-2005), began playing together in September 2021. Their first public performance took place in the Spring of 2022 at Roosevelt University, where they are part of a cohort of professionally-bound music majors enrolled at the Chicago College of Performing Arts.
Trained at El Sistema, inspired by Jesus Rafael Soto
In Venezuela, all were part of El Sistema, the legendary music education program founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu (1939-2018). Success stories from this teaching method include internationally-renowned conductors Gustavo Dudamel and Rafael Payare. “There are very good and talented people there,” said Gabriela, who shares the quartet’s first violin responsibilities with Jesús. “There are a lot of players who have found their ways in different parts of the world. What we experienced there was very good.”
Often traveling on public buses for more than five hours, the aspiring musicians made weekly visits to Caracas to study at El Sistema’s central facility. “There is a huge sculpture by Soto in the front,” recalled Pedro. “So that sculpture means culture and music and all of our background. Caracas was the center of El Sistema, and they had the best teachers.”
“We spent about two weeks thinking of a name,” said Gabriela, who came up with the idea of taking the name Soto String Quartet. “We wanted something that would represent us as a Venezuelan ensemble that wouldn’t be too common. It came down to two names and Mr. Hersh said it had to be Soto. And I was like, ‘Yes!’”
Gabriela and Jesús have been in the U.S. for five years, Lidanys and Pedro for three. Their time away from their homeland only serves to remind them more about what they left behind. It’s very different here,” explained Jesús. “For example, how teachers talk to students and how we were taught. We all talk about this. Over there, our teachers were angrier with us. ‘Do this, do this’ – more strict with us – ‘you are out of tune, put this in tune, go practice.’ Here, maybe it’s the school or culture. You cannot talk too angry to the students.”“Here they talk to their students without filters,” noted Pedro. “They say what they really want right away.”
“Washing machine, dryer machine – you don’t have to wash by hand!” said Lidanys. “And also with money. In Venezuela the number one worry is the money situation. Here, there are many more opportunities to have an income or work.” “One of the things that shocked me here was the transportation,” said Gabriela. “In Venezuela there is not a time that tells you, the bus is arriving in fifteen minutes. You just need to guess. You will be late to rehearsals if you don’t plan ahead of time. I remember in my last years I was waiting for the bus for like 40 minutes. It was very frustrating.”
Challenges Back Home
The Sotos remain painfully aware of the societal problems and the struggling families they left behind. “Venezuela is in a terrible spot – it should have never been like that,” said Jesús. “And coming to a country where everything, the basics, are as they’re supposed to be. It’s helpful. You can concentrate on your music. We came from bad things to just normal.”
“My family doesn’t want to ask me for anything,” explained Gabriela. “They prefer not to worry me about it because they know I’m alone here. But I’m always like, ‘Let me do this, I can do it – I’m fine – let me help.’” “We all have strong parents,” said Pedro. “We’re trying to make their lives easier, because it’s pretty hard, by sending some money. They don’t want us to because they know we are students.”
The opportunity to create a successful string quartet has helped the players to realize long hoped-for dreams as they undertake the challenges. “I always wanted to do quartets,” recalled Pedro. “I was in Venezuela, and Jesús, Gabriela, and Lidanys were here in Chicago, and we talked on the phone. Jesús said, ‘you need to come here,’ and I said, ‘okay.’ I can say that the quartet was his idea. I did some quartets with two different groups, but it is now where we’re learning how to do this with Mr. Hersh.”
“In Venezuela, we do a lot of orchestra but the chamber music part is not as active,” added Lidanys. “It’s the first time for all of us to start thinking what we could do professionally together – to not only play but to make a career with it,” said Gabriela “I’ve always had that in my mind and when I got here, I wanted to make that happen,” recalled Jesús. “I’ve always had that in my mind.”
A Notoriously Difficult Undertaking
All the desire and commitment in the world doesn’t change the fact that getting four individuals to express themselves with one voice is a notoriously difficult undertaking. Jesús remembered a rude awakening: “Working on the Mendelssohn F minor Quartet, I thought because that one is very famous — all of us have heard it before many times — I thought that as a quartet we were going to have a very defined kind of playing…tempos, rubatos — I thought it was going to be easier to put four minds together. It didn’t happen. All of us had different ideas.” “For me it’s the amount of detail needed for only four people to play together,” said Gabriela.
“When we rehearse and have coachings, it’s very incredible — how you put your bow on the string, for example. It’s a lot of detail to get just two notes at exactly the same time.” “It’s really hard to do this in all aspects,” added Pedro. “We find ourselves in the place we rehearse, and we think it’s sounding good. So when we offer our work to a coach, they say ‘it’s okay’ and for us, it took a lot of time to get to that place. It shows me how huge is this chamber music work. It’s been a challenge to find time to rehearse — to find a place to check my individual parts before going to the quartet — because we play for orchestras, we teach, and there’s school.”
Lidanys added another but equally important aspect: “Responsibility. It’s not only about practicing. How you connect with other people; how you answer emails. It’s part of the quartet — answering people that are willing to help us. It’s really like a compromise. If we’re in a quartet, it’s not only about hours of practicing but getting organized so we can get more opportunities.”
Jesús delighted in explaining how the Soto Quartet is making it work. “If we’re playing a very melodic passage of a quartet, let Gabriela say something because she’s very cantabile, singing and expressive. If it’s something more rhythmic, let me say something, so we are very tight and locked in. And if we have a passage that’s more outgoing, then we say, ‘let’s do Lidanys’ phrases, very open and moving.’ The same with Pedro because he’s very passionate when he plays. He gets into the music a lot, and we say, play like Pedro, go for the music like Pedro.
Friends for Life
“I’ve heard a lot of stories that quartets sometimes have problems. I don’t think that’s going to happen to us as often as other quartets because we’ve known each other for so long. I met Pedro when I was 10, I met Gabriella when I was 8, and I met Lidanys when I was 17. We’ve been long life friends, and we know how to solve any conflict or disagreements that we have.”