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Music students earn gold at 'Olympics' of chamber music

Quartet Fuoco (Italian for "fire") includes Stevenson High School junior Chris Gao (second from right, playing the cello). The quartet won the gold medal in the Fischoff national competition on May 11. | Courtesy of Midwest Young Artists
Trio Royale, which includes young musicians from Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire and Vernon Hills, earned their way into the second round of the Fischoff national chamber music competition May 9-11. | Courtesy of Midwest Young Artists
Trio Royale, which includes young musicians from Buffalo Grove, Lincolnshire and Vernon Hills, earned their way into the second round of the Fischoff national chamber music competition May 9-11. | Courtesy of Midwest Young Artists

When he thinks about his students’ futures, Allan Dennis becomes animated with excitement. But when he thinks about what four of his longtime performers just accomplished, the founder and executive director of Midwest Young Artists has to choke tears back.

Just ask him how he feels about Quartet Fuoco.

“I feel a great sense of pride,” Dennis said. “I’ve known these kids six or seven years. I’ve seen them grow up.”

And he has seen them grow into champions: Quartet Fuoco won the gold medal in their division of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition on May 11 at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. Referred to by many in the chamber music scene as “the Olympics,” Fischoff gold is one of the highest honors musicians of that style can receive.

And Quartet Fuoco — Rachel Stenzel (violin), Aidan Perreault (violin), David Berghoff (viola) and Stevenson High School’s Christopher Gao (cello) — did it on their last try. The group won third place in the 18-and-under category in 2013, and Stenzel and Berghoff are going to college next year.

“It represents a huge winner,” Dennis said. “For us, it’s a big step.”

The Fischoff 18-and-under division started with 24 groups on May 9, coming from Seattle, Houston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, St. Paul, Evanston and elsewhere in the Chicago area; some of the eight judges hailed from Germany and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Quartet Fuoco (Italian for “fire”) came through with three pieces that the judges considered:

• Johannes Brahms’ string quartet in A-minor (the finale of opus 51 no. 2)

• Ludwig van Beethoven’s string quartet opus 130, the fifth movement, in B-flat

• Béla Bartók’s string quartet no. 4, the fifth movement

Dennis said that he believes it was their performance of Beethoven’s slow-moving piece that earned them the top honor. Lots of high-level groups can play with speed, he said — his students put “fire and soul” into a work that required it.

“It wasn’t academic in any way,” he said. “It was a friendship, and a kinship, and a desire to get one idea, one idea, out to the audience. That showed maturity beyond their years. That’s passion. That’s ‘fuoco.’”

And that’s just about it for the four, who will perform again on Chicago’s WFMT 98.7 FM and at a two-week camp at the University of Virginia before parting ways.

“They’re going to miss this quartet,” he said.

But Dennis is going to reload, with Trio Royale.

Consisting of Derek Chung, a Woodlawn Middle School eighth-grader; Haddon Kay, a Daniel Wright Junior High eighth-grader; and Masha Lakisova, a home-schooled sixth-grader from Vernon Hills, the much-younger Trio Royale earned their way into the same competition as Quartet Fuoco, making it into the second of the four rounds.

“That’s our future,” Dennis said. “They are amazing. They’re like old people’s minds and souls in little people’s bodies.”

Dennis knows the years it took for his quartet to achieve its gold — and he knows his trio has those years in front of them. He hopes to be getting choked up again.

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