Milena Parajo-van de Stadt was little more than a toddler when she noticed some buskers playing violin in a park in Oxford, England.
She promptly switched her focus from the piano, which her father was teaching her, to the violin.
At the age of 15 she changed directions again, to play the viola in a string quartet that also featured her cello-playing younger brother, Adrian.
“When I started playing viola, I felt like I had found my voice,” she says. “I became obsessed with it instantly.”
Besides piano and violin, Pajaro-van de Stat spent her middle and senior school years in the U.S. learning trombone, trumpet, euphonium, and “all sorts of band instruments”.
Before her last year of high school, she went to a music festival in Maine as a violinist, but took her viola along just in case.
When viola teacher Michael Klotz discovered she had no one teaching her, he offered to take her on. Before long, he suggested she apply to the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.
“I just looked at him dumbfounded, because I thought he was crazy,” she laughs.
“No one ever really thinks they’re going to get into Curtis, let alone on an instrument I had been playing for less than a year.”
Pajaro-van de Stadt quickly learned “exactly enough” viola repertoire to audition for Curtis.
“When I got the call that I had got in, it was like a sign from the heavens that I was destined to be a violist, and I couldn’t have been happier.”
In Philadelphia, she soon met a freshman cello student named Camden Shaw.
“Camden and I started playing together literally from the first month we entered Curtis,” she says.
At that time, the school had a string quartet that included second-year violin students Joel Link and Bryan Lee.
“I had never heard a quartet of people my age sound so good before,” Pajaro-von de Stadt says of the group.
By her third year at Curtis, that quartet was about to lose its cello and viola players. She and Shaw approached the two violinists about playing a quartet together.
“From the moment the four of us sat down and played, it just felt right,” Pajaro-von de Stadt says.
After they had worked on a few pieces together, one of their first coaches, Schmuel Ashkenasi, of the world-renowned Vermeer Quartet, popped the question: “Have you guys thought about getting married?”
That seal of approval prompted the 19-year-olds to form their own group, the Old City String Quartet.
They later changed the name to the Dover Quartet, in homage to a composition called Dover Beach, by famous Curtis alumnus Samuel Barber.
That was six years and many concerts ago.
Now, fast-forward to 2013 and the Banff International String Quartet Competition;
each of the ten competing foursomes was required to perform a brand-new work, the Quartet No. 3 by Edmonton composer Vivian Fung, commissioned especially for the event.
The group from Philadelphia swept the boards, winning the top prize and all three of the competition’s special awards, and catapulting the Dover Quartet to international stardom.
“We still all get chills when we think of that moment,” Pajaro-van de Stadt says by phone from her hotel room in Rochester, N.Y., where the group performed the previous evening.
Three days earlier, they played in St. Albert, Alberta to an audience that included Fung’s parents and her former teacher. Two days later, they were scheduled to appear at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The current season alone consists of over 100 concert bookings in the U.S., Canada, South America, and Europe.
“Even though none of us are in actual relationships together, it really is like a marriage,” she says. “That can be a challenge, but every year we learn how to do it that much more.”
Whitehorse audiences will get to hear the Dover Quartet on Saturday, October 18 at the Yukon Arts Centre, as part of the Whitehorse Concerts series.
The performance starts at 8:00 p.m. and includes Mozart’s “Hoffmeister” quartet (K. 499), the String Quartet No. 11 in C Major (op. 61) by Antonín Dvořák, as well as the Fung Quartet No. 3.