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Four Roses and Not a Thorn

String quartet Rosette takes a modern, feminist approach to classics.

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Richmond has math rock, punk rock, hip-hop, indie pop, shoe gaze, gamelan and ever so many other genres of music. But have you ever checked out Rosette, a four-woman string quartet that is fiercely feminist and bravely dives into contemporary avant-garde compositions by other women? Members occasionally back Latin-American balladeers Miramar, too. 

Let's go. 

On a recent summer morning, the four are practicing a short piece called "Strum" by Jessie Montgomery, who is not only a woman but also a living composer, which sets her apart from what you may expect to hear at a classical music concert. 

As second violinist Treesa Gold and violist Kimberly Ryan begin by plucking their instruments, producing a staccato twang, cellist Steph Barrett and first violinist Ellen Cockerham Riccio join in with bows across their strings. It's a cinematic score and then dissonant bluegrass, and then it's a comedy. Laughter breaks out after a misstep.
"This is hard, because in order to play it, I have to ignore you completely," Barrett says, gesturing to the other three musicians.

"We have to ignore ourselves completely," Riccio adds.

This is the quartet's first time practicing "Strum" together, after all. 

Because of their busy schedules, the four practice on their own and then block out a week every summer to play together nonstop, taking breaks to eat, laugh and do yoga. This day's practice is in a small guest bedroom in Riccio's East End home. Her tuxedo cat wanders in for a quick pat.

Rosette's connection is more than musical. They're friends, too. 

Back in 2015, Ryan, Gold and Riccio knew each other through Classical Revolution RVA and jokingly called themselves "the quartet" when they played together. Then "Steph came along, and it was magic," Gold recalls, and the fake quartet became a real one. 
"I've had a few experiences like Rosette but not in Richmond," Riccio says. "You sit down and play, and the product is greater than the sum of its parts. We're feeling the music the same way." 

"Ellen told us, and I thought, 'That can't be right,'" Gold says. "We all bow down to Ellen because she finds these amazing pieces to play."

"We all look up to Ellen a little bit," Ryan says. 

Riccio, after all, is the ringleader of the quartet and often chooses the pieces that Rosette plays in concert. She's also a founder and former executive director of Classical Revolution RVA and principal second violinist in the Richmond Symphony. Gold plays violin with the symphony, serves as concertmaster at the Opera on the James and teaches students, as does Ryan, who directs string orchestra and choir at Trinity Episcopal School and Youth Chamber Music RVA. 

Of course, a small obstacle to the perfect quartet was that Barrett, who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2014, was about to leave Richmond for southern Florida to attend graduate school at Lynn University. Rosette managed to play a few dates here and there when Barrett came home for vacation, but now she is finished with school and back full-time in Richmond, where she teaches and plays with several classical ensembles and orchestras. 

"I knew after a few months at school, I'd come back," Barrett says. The group picked up where it left off and has plans to perform more this year. 

Playing a mixture of older classical pieces by Robert Schumann, Béla Bartók and Joseph Haydn and works by contemporary composers Montgomery and Pulitzer winner Caroline Shaw, the musicians take time at their concerts to describe the background stories of the pieces, including what emotions they evoke. This is similar to Classical Revolution concerts, which aim to make symphonies and sonatas more accessible to the public. 

At a June concert at the Glave Kocen Gallery, about 100 people gathered in casual clothing and folding chairs to see Rosette. Ryan's hair was pink, Gold's had dark blue streaks, and Riccio and Barrett donned fire-engine-red pumps. They talked about how Schumann wrote a romantic ode to his beloved wife, Clara, while battling strange and distressing voices in his head. 

Later, they used their string instruments to mimic Peruvian instruments in Gabriela Lena Frank's "Leyendas: an Andean Walkabout," and played one movement that was as terrifying as any music in the scariest horror movie you've seen. The high notes hung in the gallery air as the audience shivered. 

This time, "Strum" sounded perfectly discordant, just as Montgomery calls for in the 2015 piece, which she wrote for her own group, the Catalyst Quartet. It's the kind of piece that only a smaller group of musicians can take on and explore.

"You can be more expressive in a quartet than you can be in an orchestra," Ryan says. 

Riccio agrees.

"In an orchestra, it's mostly somebody telling you how to play."

Find out when Rosette performs by following it at facebook.com/rosetteSQ. 

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