Renowned string quartet program brings first-time international students to campus

Gathering outside of Mason Hall are (from left): Ryu Wada, Gisselle Wing Chi So, Grace McKenzie, Lavinnia Rae and KiHei Lee.

The Castleman Quartet Program, a summertime fixture at the State University of New York at Fredonia for over a decade, is attracting to an ever-growing number of international students to campus.

What’s notable about this year’s class are five international students who are in the United States for the first time. The program had no international students when it arrived at Fredonia 12 years ago. About a third of the 78 students and interns attending the seven-week program in June and July are from other countries.

It’s definitely unusual, remarked Castleman Quartet Program Founder/Director Charles Castleman, to have five international students — all at the same time — experiencing their visit to the United States. The program draws top-flight string musicians, between the ages of 15 and 28, who are among the most talented in their home countries. Most often they’re already attending an American university or conservatory before applying to the intensive Castleman program to supplement their studies.

“There’s hardly anybody in the (musical) field who is successful who did not go through this program at one time or another,” Mr. Castleman remarked. Many students are enrolled at Harvard, Princeton or Yale or attend schools in London.

The five international musicians are: Gisselle Wing Chi So, violin, Hong Kong; KiHei Lee, violin; Grace McKenzie, violin, and Lavinnia Rae, cello, all of New Zealand; and Ryu Wada, violin, from Brazil. Additional countries represented include: Canada, China, Germany, Japan, Korea and the Ukraine.

“They learn about (the Castleman program) from people that they know in their home country who went to the program or who studied with our faculty,” Castleman said. The 50-year-old program is highly selective, attracting four or five applicants for each slot. “We’ve never done a bit of advertising; it’s all done by word-of-mouth,” he added.

Castleman reports that their English language skills are good and they have quickly adapted to their new surroundings and made new friends. What challenges they did encounter were related to travel arrangements.

“They’re having a great time, are very excited and they love the campus and they love the town,” Castleman said. A visit to Niagara Falls, which included a ride on the Maid of the Mist, was held in early July. Students reside in residence halls and take their meals on campus.

The CQP program consists of two sessions (June 9-30 and June 30-July 21) followed by an extra week-long session. It has earned high praise from Yo-Yo Ma, who considers it “the best program of its kind that I know.”

CQP musicians give a variety of solo and quartet performances in Rosch Recital Hall that are free and open to the public, and have also presented popup concerts in the community.