Long before Joel Link became one of the most renowned violinists of his generation, he made it clear that he was interested in music. How? By standing up at his sister’s recital and announcing that it was his turn to play. He was only three years old at the time. “My parents weren’t professional musicians themselves but they recognized great value in it,” Link says. “They wanted to teach us the skills needed to be successful and have a good work ethic. That’s how it began!” And now, Link’s success and work ethic are extraordinary by any measure: He is the first violinist of the Dover Quartet, the Penelope P. Watkins Ensemble in Residence at the Curtis Institute of Music. He’s the winner of numerous prestigious awards and, among other roles, he travels the world performing.
Named one of the greatest string quartets of the last 100 years by BBC Music Magazine, the Grammy-nominated Dover Quartet players “have it in them to become the next Guarneri String Quartet – they’re that good” (Chicago Tribune). So how does one of the world’s most in-demand quartets navigate their success on a daily basis? “We’re constantly figuring things out about it,” Link says. “Being in a quartet is an interesting balance of having to respect everyone’s autonomy and individuality while also constantly being a team player. It’s most successful with people who have a critical mindset in healthy ways and who also allow everyone to be who they are. Everyone gives what they can, and things have to remain fluid.” This applies to interpersonal dynamics but also to the practicality of business operations: there’s an element of unpredictability – travel delays or sudden illness, for example – but navigating those challenges with the same understanding you embrace your colleague’s idiosyncrasies leads to a smoother and more enjoyable experience. “Everyday is a learning curve,” Link adds, “and it’s all about mindset and realistic expectations.”
Music is about reaching people
As Link travels the world performing, music has led to impactful interactions with different cultures. “Being able to communicate with people you might not actually be able to speak to is really special,” he says. “The more specific and better we are with what we’re saying through music, the more deeply we can touch people. A huge impetus for me to want to improve my technique is to improve the specificity with what I want to say. Music, to me, is all about reaching people.” While so much about music can be shared and experienced universally, he says there are also noticeable differences between cultures. Audience reactions vary, for example, and emotions are expressed differently. Some cultures emote throughout the performance with expressive nonverbal cues; some cultures appear more stoic but erupt in prolonged applause at the concert’s end. He also notes that they typically always play encores in Europe, but rarely in the United States – partly because of different expectations for how the concert will be organized and concluded.
Why chamber music?
Link has experience performing in all types of ensembles and as a soloist, and he recognizes that there’s something extra special about chamber music. “It’s about being part of something larger than yourself while not losing your individuality,” he says. “It’s completely personal but also greater than you. It’s the ultimate form of making music.” For these reasons, he notices that chamber music has a unique ability to resonate with audiences. “People come up to me after concerts and tell me they’ve never experienced anything like it,” he says. “The communication, the intensity, the interaction – it’s the most interesting for people to watch.”
“KCMF is a tight knit community”
At the KCMF concerts on Friday, July 28 and Sunday, July 30, Link will join the rest of the Dover Quartet in performing with violist Che-Hung Chen, oboist Richard Woodhams, and pianist Natalie Zhu. “I’m excited for all of it,” he says. “I get to do everything I love: collaborate, play solo, play new music. I’m excited to be around Woodhams and experience his musicianship. The Dvořák piece we’ll play with Che-Hung Chen is one of my very favorites. And I’m a huge fan of [KCMF artistic director] Natalie Zhu and her husband Che-Hung Chen. They are awesome people and musicians, full of warmth and kindness. They’re so genuine.” And despite his travels to many music festivals across the globe, Link says Kingston will always have a special appeal. “The location is really unique,” he says. “And the festival itself is very individual. A lot of festivals are so big that a lot goes on at the same time and things are split up. At KCMF, everybody comes to everything and it becomes a tight knit community. I love that!”