The Musical Life
Last month, during the Beatles fiftieth-anniversary hoopla, a hot young European foursome with distinctive hairdos—Asbjørn Nørgaard, Frederik øland, Fredrik Schoyen Sjolin, and Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen—landed in New York for a high-profile gig. They are the Danish String Quartet, from Copenhagen, and they’re at the beginning of a three-year residency with CMS Two, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s emerging-stars program. A few nights before a concert at Alice Tully Hall (which yielded mucous cheering, four cur tain calls, and a woman exclaiming, “This has never happened before”), they laced up their sneakers and hit the town.
The evening began at Bar Centrale, where they slid into a booth and ordered margaritas. Their instruments were in Chelsea, locked in a room with a man named Max, awaiting a late-night set in the bar at the McKittrick Hotel, on Twenty-seventh Street. “They’re not our instruments—we borrow them from generous Scandinavian foundations,” Norgaard, the viola player, said. He has a full beard and hair that evokes Bjorn Borg’s at its fluffiest. ‘They’re a work tool, but also a piece ofhistozy. My viola is four hundred and fifty years old.”
“My violin was built in 1708, in Venezia,” øland said. He has a swoop of yel low hair and wore a black T-shirt with a galaxy on it As drinks arrived, he admired a Manhattan served with a “divide nd”—a little extra drink, in a carafe, on ice. “It’s like a My Little Chemist set,” he said.
Sjolin, the cellist, is Norwegian. He started the beard trend. “He came in with this Norwegian Viking look,” Nørgaard said. “My wife said I looked like a little boy. She said, ‘Fredrilc has a beard, can’t you?’ “) Sjolin’s cello is from 1688. “Peo pie who play the instrument also form the instrument,” he said. “ks kind of a hippie thing to say, but true.”
Sørensen’s violin is from the eigh teenth century, on loan from the Goof Foundation. “Yeah, Goof;” he said. “He was a dentist, and he started buying in struments.” (Actually, Goofwas a dentally inclined businessman.) Sørensen has shaggy hair and wore a T-shirt with an image of a man who had a birdcage for a head. “It’s a rather feminine instrument, very light and slim. Before it, I played a Stradivarius.”
That night, they were seeing the Cot ton Club revue “After Midnight,” on Broadway. They like jazz, and other genres—indie, folk, bluegrass—with one caveat.
Sjolin: “I hate the word ‘crossover.’” “Like, ‘Oh, my God, classical is bor ing—we have to fix it,” Nørgaard said. They do not find classical music bor ing. The three Danes met as boys, at an all-ages summer music camp, where long days spent playing violin and viola came with interludes of soccer and romance.
“It was the magic week of our year,” Nørgaard said.
“The week after, so empty, the worst week of the year,” Sørensen said.
Øland said, “Everywhere else, you have to play perfectly, but there you’d pick the hardest thing you could, and just play.” He shook his head, smiling. ‘You’d get kidnapped by some old dudes and play fifteen Beethoven string quartets.”
“After Midnight” had a similar blend of discipline and joy. The group sat with Wu Han, the artistic director of the Chamber Music Society, and watched in amazement as the show unfolded—Fan tasia, tap dancing, feathers, red balloons, cartwheels, the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars, “East St. Louis Toodle-oo.” At the curtain call, they clapped and hollered. In the car, Wu Han said, ‘The way the girl used the vibrato was so sexy.” “It was a very sexy show in general,” Sørensen said.
At the McKittrick, before the set, there was time to catch the end of “Sleep No More,” the nightmare-funhouse “Macbeth” spectacle. The Scandina vians found themselves navigating dark haflw?ys, wearing white masks, with beaks. “This is like The Texas Chain- saw Massacre,’” øland said. They ob served fistfights, negligees, and taxi dermy, and, Nergaard later pointed out, heard what sounded like Herrmann’s “Psycho: A Suite for Strings.”
“Maybe for a New Yorker it’s not that strange, but to go from the most happy show on earth to this, with peo pie getting murdered, it’s very strange,” Nørgaard said.
The hotel’s Manderley Bar was an anteroom to normalcy, but only just: red walls, stray masks, candlelit tables. The musicians sat onstage under orange and blue lights, and raised their bows. With precision and warmth, they played the last movement of the Beethoven “Serioso,” Opus 95—sombre, then urgent, and end ing with a flourish of happiness. The au thence waited several seconds, in silence. Then it went crazy.