Nina Lee has played cello in the Brentano String Quartet since 1998, a quartet founded in 1992 by four Juilliard graduates who now teach at Princeton, Columbia and Juilliard among others. As a member of a string quartet, Nina believes that the goal, unlike that of musicians in other genres, is to create the closest thing possible to what the composer envisioned. She told me that many times she has wished that she could simply call Beethoven and ask him, “Is this what you meant?”
I was lucky to speak with Lee after she worked on the movie A Late Quartet, debuting November 2nd. The film is inspired by and structured around Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-Sharp minor. A Late Quartet’s director Yaron Zilberman was connected with the Brentano String Quartet because they, like Zilberman, had a fascination with Beethoven’s late quartet pieces and were creating their own project around these works.
When did you start playing cello?
I started playing cello when I was 10 years old. I had been studying piano for three years, but it went nowhere. I was in public school in Missouri, in 4th grade, there was a group of people who gathered the whole grade together in the cafeteria and played the theme from the Oscar Mayer baloney song and that was it! I was hooked!
When did you start playing music for a living?
When I was 16, I moved to Philadelphia and started studying at the Curtis Institute of Music. I quit music for a short period when I was attending Boston University to be a biologist. I realized how much I missed my music and was incredibly fortunate to have met Joel Krosnick where I eventually came to be under his guidance at The Juilliard School. I finished my studies at Juilliard and started playing and teaching with my quartet during my last year of school.
Actually, getting back into music was a pretty cool story. While at the Gardner Museum in Boston, I attended a chamber music concert where one of the musicians was Mark Steinberg (1st violinist of the Brentano Quartet)–this concert changed the course of my life. I was blown a way by how the musicians communicated with each other, I thought, “This is it! I want to do this.” Years later I had a chance to tell Mark that he changed my life. Now I play quartets with him!
What musicians do you look up to?
I look up to and admire so many people. One of the most moving concerts I’ve ever been to was that of the tabla player, Zakir Hussain, at Carnegie Hall. He played together with traditional Indian players from all different regions, bluegrass, jazz and classical players. It was singular. I have never seen music so filled with life. Classical music crowds are often quite reserved, it was amazing to see someone reach across so many lines and create a language with which so many can identify with. This man is truly magical!
What is the weirdest gig you’ve ever played?
Tecate beer factory in Mexico. We were playing Schubert‘s G Major String Quartet, an incredibly profound piece, all the while the beer machines rumbled behind us.
What instrument would you play if you had time to master a new instrument?
I would sing or play piano. Singing because it is the voice that we try to emulate most of the time. Piano because it would be satisfying to play multiple voices at once and learn to look at music vertically instead of horizontally.
What is your main mode of transportation?
Public transit. I ride the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan with my cello regularly, it sits in a bright silver case which for some reason makes people want to knock on the case. This incites anger in me because people don’t realize that my cello was made in 1724!
How do you pass the time on the road?
We are such good friends in the quartet, I can’t imagine not getting along with the others in the group. There are famous stories of other groups existing while have contentious relationships within the quartet but we aren’t one of them. We all read a lot. I catch up on stuff that I need to do. There’s a tough balance as a musician and mother to 2 small kids so it is nice to have down time.
How were you involved in the filming of A Late Quartet?
The director, Yaron Zilberman, approached my quartet after he had heard us play Beethoven’s Op. 131. He told us of his project and of course we were curious and interested to be involved in his project! He filmed us performing from many different angles so they could use it to act as a a practice guide for the actors. Later I was asked to portray a cellist in the movie. I said, “Sounds interesting but I don’t act!” Well, I ended up in the movie after all without any lines. Actually I was 5 months pregnant at the time, but it wasn’t an issue because the cello covers up your stomach. All in all it was about two days of filming.
What advice would you give to someone who’s just starting out?
I believe that one either sacrifices and compromises to be able to stay in a city that he/she wants to live in or goes out to find a place to go where he/she is able to exists where their musical ideals aren’t compromised. Keep your imagination and inventiveness open to any and all possibilities; especially in an age where it is harder and harder to be a working musician!
Keep people around you that will push you to be better. When immersing yourself in learning a certain piece, try and get a feel for the composer’s whole body of work by listening and studying other pieces by the same composer.
-Aaron (Community Manager)