A quince is a tart, bright-yellow fruit that is often used for preserves and jellies. It also happens to serve as the name of an all-female, contemporary vocal quartet that has been dubbed “the Anonymous 4 of new music.”
In the beginning, the word “quince” had a kind of double meaning for the ensemble, which will make its CSO debut March 23 on the orchestra’s MusicNOW series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. The prefix “quin” refers to the number “five” in certain contexts. The group originally had five members when it was established in 2009 at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University where the singers were graduate students. (Note: Due to the COVID-19 heath crisis, this concert run has been canceled. Tickets may be exchanged for other CSO/SCP concerts or refunded.)
When one of the founding members left, the others decided to keep the appellation Quince Ensemble. “We didn’t feel like ‘Quartz’ was an appropriate name for us,” said mezzo-soprano Kayleigh Butcher, who serves as the ensemble’s executive director. (Other members are sopranos Liz Pearse, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett and Carrie Henneman Shaw.) “We just liked the name Quince, so we stuck with it. People still sometimes think that we’re five people. But, nope, we’re just four.”
From the start, Quince has been devoted to contemporary music. Indeed, the group recently launched the Quince New Music Commissioning Fund as a means to help expand the repertoire for its combination of voices.
“That’s where our interests lie when we’re together,” Butcher said. “We’re interested in commissioning new works for our voices specifically. All of us individually have side projects that fulfill those other desires. Carrie Henneman Shaw, one of our sopranos, is an early-music technician based in the Twin Cities. And she really gets a lot of joy and happiness out of that, and the rest of us kind of do Romantic music. Liz [Pearse] is a really big Strauss fan, and I really like Second Viennese School, so I have projects that focus on that.”
Opera News has called Quince “the Anonymous 4 of new music,” a reference to the famed vocal quartet that devoted itself to primarily early music but also performed some contemporary repertoire as well during its run from 1986 through 2015. Quince obviously appreciates the link to Anonymous 4, because it trumpets the quote on its website. “We do love the comparison,” Butcher said, “because we think they’re awesome.”
Because two of Quince’s four members live in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, the group uses that area as its base. (It was headquartered in Chicago from 2012 to 2016.) Butcher, who lives in New York, and Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, who resides in Omaha, Neb., regularly fly there for rehearsals and meetings.
The ensemble performs 20-30 concerts a year all over the United States, devoting much of its time to college and university residencies, like one it conducted Jan. 26-Feb. 2 at the University of California-Davis, and other kinds of educational outreach. Quince is particularly interested in working with young composers who have little or no experience writing for voices. The group is a big fan of Warner Enström, whom it met during a student-composer residency at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The group regularly performs his work, Hushers, and has even recorded an album that it named after that composition.
Butcher regards performing on the MusicNOW series one of “biggest highlights” of Quince’s 2019-20 season. “We’re really excited to be able to showcase a lot of the music that we’re working on,” she said. “We were based in Chicago for a very long time, and we have been to so many MusicNOW performances. And Missy Mazzoli, we’re a big fan of hers. It’s incredibly exciting for us to be able to come back to Chicago in this way and to showcase vocal music that we’re really excited about.”
Mazzoli, who is in her second season as the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in-Residence, serves as the curator for MusicNOW, the orchestra’s contemporary music series now in its 23rd season. She has put an emphasis on composers who have never been featured on the series before, especially women and those with Chicago connections.
Mazzoli and Quince were aware of each other previously, but it was through composer Courtney Bryan, an assistant professor of music at Tulane University, that the ensemble is featured on the March 23 concert. The four singers met her during a residency in New Hampshire and became fans of Bryan and her work. Quince had already commissioned a work from Bryan, and she recommended to Mazzoli that Quince perform that composition as part of MusicNOW. “We kind of combined the commission together, so that there is a piece that we could premiere on MusicNOW but we also have something that we could tour later on,” Butcher said. “So Courtney was actually kind of the middle man there.”
Bryan proposed writing some type of a mass for the commission, and Quince readily assented. “We’ve never had anything like that before as Quince, so we were really interested in knowing what that would be in her voice,” Butcher said. The result is a 20- to 25-minute piece titled Requiem, which will be accompanied by CSO members playing clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba and percussion.
Quince will open the program with Gilda Lyons’ Bone Needles, which Butcher said is one of the group’s favorites by this composer. A wordless duet featuring Bartlett and Pearse, it’s a kind of a tapestry of the sounds the composer heard while watching a group of Nicaraguan women weave fishing nets with bone needles. “It’s a really cool piece, and there is no text at all,” Butcher said. “It’s just kind of women hooting in really beautiful ways.” Next comes Engström’s Hushers, which employs variations on hisses and shushes based on consonants from the Russian language and morphs into a textless, lush soundscape with overlapping overtones and subtones. “It’s really fun to sing,” Butcher said.
The program continues with The Pub, a world premiere by Chicago-based composer David Reminick. The Pub is from a group of songs that Reminick is writing for Quince called In Dreams, which is in turn part of a larger work titled The Sleep Cycle. This section is based on a dream that composer Alex Temple had. It involves her going to a pub and then realizing that she has somehow killed a person and is being chased by a detective. “It’s a weird, bizarre piece, where we wind up singing backward a few times and creating this rewind effect.”
The works by Lyons, Engström and Reminick will be performed a cappella. The program ends with conductor Edwin Outwater leading Bryan’s Requiem, as well as the program’s only all-instrumental piece, Mazzoli’s Ecstatic Science, a sextet for winds and strings.
The group is especially pleased to be part of Reminick’s world premiere. “He is one of my favorite people in the whole world,” Butcher said, “and one of my favorite composers.”