Members of the Efferus String Quartet say their playing has grown by leaps and bounds since leaving Colombia together nearly two years ago for Kent State University to study for a master's degree in chamber music.

"We are in a completely different level from when we came here" in 2017, second violinist Irene Guerra said after a quartet rehearsal April 1.

Efferus, which formed in 2014 in Bogota, will celebrate a milestone with its final graduate chamber music recital at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at Ludwig Recital Hall. They have four renowned musicians on KSU's faculty — cellist Keith Robinson and violinist Cathy Meng Robinson of the Miami String Quartet, and Amy Lee (violin) and Joanna Patterson Zakany (viola) of the Cleveland Orchestra — to thank for helping them get there.

"It's incredible that we have teachers from that level, which is very high ... and they're here every week," Guerra said.

Keith Robinson and wife Cathy Meng Robinson, founding members of the Miami String Quartet, met Efferus at the Festiqartetos chamber music festival in Bogota in 2014. The young musicians, who had met playing in the Nueva Philharmonia in Bogota, received coaching from the Miami String Quartet at the festival just seven months after forming Efferus.

"Chamber music is not very big in Colombia," said Guerra, 32. "We don't have many string quartets, actually."

"We love chamber music. We love string quartets, so we decided to have a string quartet."

Amazing experience

Paula Castaneda (violin), Guerra (violin), Cristian Diaz (viola) and Maria Florez (cello) said the decision to move to the United States was easy for most of them, other than Florez, who left behind a home and fiance.

"For us, it wasn't that difficult" to decide to study here, Diaz said. "I think it was because of the money and the conditions that Kent State was giving to us about the master's was great."

Their graduate assistantships cover tuition and living expenses, freeing the musicians to focus on rehearsing.

"My experience in France was completely the opposite. I worked a lot to pay for my food and my house," said Florez, who completed a cello master's program in Paris. "This experience is just amazing."

None of the Efferus members grew up learning English in school, so they studied the language for three months before coming in order to pass a required proficiency test. Their command of English has grown in the last two years, but Castaneda, 32, still laughs when she thinks of all the initially confusing adjectives her American coaches used to describe music-making, including "milky, chunky, crispy, fussy, scratchy" and "lush."

Efferus isn't the first Colombian graduate string quartet to study at Kent. The Kent-Colombia connection was forged by Ricardo Sepulveda — a Colombian native who now runs the Kent Blossom Music Festival — who set up Miami String Quartet's 2014 concert and coaching in Bogota. As a result of the cultural exchange, the Robinsons recruited Colombia's Tierradentro String Quartet to Kent State in 2015.

The Efferus musicians, who asked the Tierradentro players all about their studies at Kent State, decided to take the leap themselves in 2017.

"They actually contacted us," Robinson said. "The rest is history. They were eager to come."

"They had a good start in Colombia," said Robinson, whom the Efferus musicians affectionately call Robby. "They were already playing many concerts in Colombia and they were having success."

Growing at Kent State

One of the biggest things the quartet members have learned at Kent State is "playing out," or projecting their sound to the back of the concert hall.

"When they got here, the quartet had such a small voice," Robinson said. "Play out and be expressive — it's one of the harder things to teach young people. But once they get it, they get it."

The quartet, which had a fairly limited repertoire, has expanded it in the last two years with a well-rounded diet of classical, romantic and modern music, Robinson said.

"I think they've really grown as a quartet and all grown individually as musicians."

Kent State's intensive chamber music graduate program has included two quartet coaching lessons each week — one with Meng Robinson and the other with Robinson — as well as individual instrumental lessons. Efferus also performs with the Kent State University Orchestra and the New Music Ensemble.

The Robinsons, who have taught at Kent for 15 years, have become Efferus' "quartet mom and dad," said Keith Robinson, even loaning the group their car. Groups such as the Kent State Orchestra Society also have provided support and meals.

"Now that I live here I am really, really surprised how welcoming people are here and how good I feel here," Florez said.

The quartet members are all on track to graduate from their chamber music program in August after participating in the Kent Blossom Music Festival, an advanced training institute for young artists run by KSU in cooperation with the Cleveland Orchestra and Blossom Music Center. Efferus will participate as a quartet in the Kent Blossom Music Festival for the first time this summer.

The musicians said their goal is to stay together as a quartet. They plan to find opportunities to perform together in Colombia, the United States or elsewhere.

Diaz, 28, will begin a two-year residency as a Diversity Fellow with the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Florez, 34, will return to Colombia and marry in December.

Castaneda and Guerra plan to extend their graduate studies at Kent State to focus specifically on violin performance.

"I love Cathy," Castaneda said. "I want to keep working with her."

 

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her at @KerryClawsonABJ or www.facebook.com/kclawsonabj.