Back in 1995, the director of music at Oberlin College, Ohio, assembled a group of six students who were passionate about new music and happy to rehearse under his direction in their spare time. Twenty-one years later, this group has risen to be one of the US’s most celebrated cutting-edge contemporary ensembles under the extraordinary name Eighth Blackbird.
“We date our start to January 1996,” says the group’s cellist, Nicholas Photinos. “At Oberlin, January is ‘Winter Term’, when students do projects of their own choice. We were enjoying playing together and we decided to enter the college’s chamber music competition, for which we couldn’t have a conductor. This was our Winter Term project and we rehearsed probably more intensely than we ever have.” They won the contest, and their success persuaded them to launch their professional lives together.
The moniker is anything but obvious, but its quirky individuality stands out. “Our violinist at the time was studying early 20th-century American poetry,” Photinos recounts. “He found a poem by Wallace Stevens called ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’. Its eighth stanza talks about “lucid, inescapable rhythms” – a really beautiful, captivating image – and we knew we didn’t want to be called something mundane like ‘Oberlin New Music Ensemble’…”
Eighth Blackbird, anything but mundane, has had only three changes of personnel in two decades. Today’s six members – or “supermusicians”, as the LA Times called them – are flautist Nathalie Joachim, clarinettist Michael J Maccaferri, violinist Yvonne Lam, percussionist Matthew Duvall, pianist Lisa Kaplan, and Photinos on the cello. This instrumental line-up is derived from Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, with added percussion: composed as long ago as 1912, that work inspired numerous pieces for similar scoring.
“When we started in 1996 there were already about 200 published works for this instrumentation,” says Photinos. “We’re adding to that.” They choose their repertoire via a democratic vote in the group, with most commissions – up to 90 minutes a year of new music – evolving “organically” through personal contacts and proven musical affinities.
The performances often involve a theatrical dimension that helps to draw in audiences who also enjoy contemporary dance, art or theatre. “We are aware of the visual aspect of what we do,” Photinos says, “so we’ll often memorise works, then introduce stage movement. That’s a hallmark of the group, something we’ve embraced from the outset.” Its excitements were proved in a recent residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, their home city: “We were literally on display! We were rehearsing in front of the museum’s patrons, we had an exhibition of our productions, we brought in local visual artists to occupy the space. Now this is something we’re looking to develop more in the future.”
The programme for the Musica Viva tour, Photinos says, combines pieces they have worked on in recent seasons with music from two of their recent recordings – one of which, Filament, won them their fourth Grammy.
“Bryce Dessner, guitarist of The National, is also very active as a composer, and he wrote a work for us a couple of years ago called Murder Ballades,” he says. “It takes a strand of American music from the 1900s in which rather pretty melodies and conventional tonality accompany lyrics about gruesome murders and other horrific things that happened in the old west. Based on that idea, he wrote a set of instrumental pieces: some are recognisable from the originals and some are his invention.
“The New York-based composer Nico Muhly is a great friend of ours. He wrote a piece for us called Doublespeak, which was on the Filament album. Nico used to be a copyist and arranger for Philip Glass and this piece pays some tribute to him, but I wouldn’t call it a minimalist work. It’s about ten minutes long, very energetic, winding down to a conclusion that sounds almost mystical.”
Two further pieces are part of a larger project that the group has undertaken with the composers’ collective Sleeping Giant. “Tim Hearne’s music has a certain grittiness, and the piece he wrote for us, By-By Huey, is dominated by a piano ostinato, sounding very restless. It sets up a tension that breaks out into a jazzy solo, which sounds improvised, yet is written out amazingly well and forms a beautiful apotheosis.
“Timo Andres’s Chequered Shade is on an almost symphonic scale. Although we’ve performed it 20-30 times, it always feels as if there are more instruments on stage than there actually are. It’s a huge sound, not only physically, but emotionally. It really grabs you.”
Last but not least, the award-winning Australian composer Holly Harrison has written a new piece for their Musica Viva tour. “Getting to know her work through this commission has been great – we’re very excited about it,” says Photinos. “This will be our fourth visit to Australia, but we’re going to some cities we’ve not toured to before. It will be wonderful to see more of this beautiful country.”
Supported by the Musica Viva Amadeus Society, Eighth Blackbird tour nationally around Australia 20 February – 9 March 2017.
For concert dates and ticket bookings, visit: musicaviva.com.au/blackbird
There’s a distinct sense of entente cordiale about the Trio Dali. The British violinist Jack Liebeck joined the French cellist Christian-Pierre La Marca and pianist Amandine Savary as the group’s new violinist in 2013, and plenty of good-natured jibing goes on while the players consider their meeting of minds. “We’re still a French group, in a way,” La Marca insists, prompting a mock-outraged “What?” from Liebeck.
Something much more important is behind this, though. “I’ve always found that cultural differences disappear when you play music,” says Liebeck. “When I’ve played with other people and there has been a language barrier, the amazing thing is that music bridges those gaps.
“Meeting ‘Crispy’ and Amandine has brought new things to my playing life, and I think my joining the trio has brought new things to them,” he adds. “It’s different voices, different ideas and ways of working. We’re all pedantic about different things. But I don’t think there is a cultural difference in terms of music.”
The original Trio Dali formed in 2006 and rapidly gained a string of prestigious prizes across three continents. Their teachers read like a Who’s Who of chamber music – Augustin Dumay, Maria João Pires, Gabor Takács-Nagy, to name but a few – and their first two recordings were showered with accolades.
Their name is only partially a reference to the Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. “We met in Spain; we were looking for a name and we of course thought about the painter,” says La Marca, “but at the same we won the Osaka Competition in Japan and we wanted to relate the painter’s name to something Asian.
“Finally we found a symbolic possibility. There are some amazing marbles in the city of Dali in China – three pagodas in this city are very famous. So it’s symbolic of taking the music from the notes and creating art.” Liebeck adds: “You take the marble, you polish it and you make something beautiful.”
The trio is bringing two programmes to Musica Viva; both include the 1991 Piano Trio by the Australian composer Roger Smalley, a piece that Liebeck says he especially advocated. “I pushed for it because when I played another piece of his recently I thought it was incredibly effective and very well written for the instruments.”
“If you speak with composers, they all tell you that to write a piano trio is one of the most difficult exercises there is,” says La Marca. “It’s much more difficult than writing a symphony or a string quartet, because there is always a balance to find. And that’s a real challenge for composers. It seems that Smalley combines all the right qualities in his piece.”
Each concert is topped and tailed with masterpieces of the trio repertoire: one programme opens with Beethoven’s first published work, the E flat major Trio Op.1 No.1, and ends with the substantial Trio by Ernest Chausson; the other starts with Mendelssohn’s Trio No.2 in C minor and concludes with Schubert’s B flat major Trio No.1.
“It’s an incredible work,” says Liebeck of the Mendelssohn. “Dramatic and troubled and dark, but at the same time very romantic. The perfect piano trio, really!” Not that the Schubert is less perfect: “I always feel that Mozart and Beethoven are the greatest composers, but they’re earthy – whereas with Schubert, it’s as if he’s from space. The colours he creates are not earthbound for me; they’re up in the sky.”
“I think the Chausson is a masterpiece of the French repertoire,” says La Marca. “We are playing it for the first time this season and it’s a real challenge. We want to continue our tradition of playing French repertoire; one of the first pieces we worked on was the Fauré Trio and our first recording was an all-Ravel disc. I feel we started something very special with the sound. Amandine is absolutely extraordinary in this repertoire. So we already did the Debussy, Ravel and Fauré, but we’ve never actually played the Chausson.”
“It’s really nice for me to be able to play a piece with them that’s wonderful and French and that they love, but that they haven’t done before,” says Liebeck. “Here we can start from the beginning.” La Marca agrees: “Everyone is at the same level. And we try to shape the music together.”
Two extraordinarily gifted young Americans, violinist Benjamin Beilman and pianist Andrew Tyson, are pairing up for a Musica Viva tour partly thanks to the US Young Concert Artists, which represents them both. But their friendship goes back much further. They first met as students at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia. Now they have some exciting plans ahead as a duo.
“We’ve played at least two or three different projects together,” Beilman says, speaking for them both, “and we also have an all-Mozart project at the Louvre in Paris about six months before the Musica Viva tour.”
He is full of praise for his duo partner. “Andrew is one of those pianists that I’ve kept my eye on for a long time,” he says, “because even in school he was very much the introspective thinker: he always had wonderful, creative ideas, but now, as he matures and gets more experience, I’m seeing this total genius develop. I think, with the mix of the repertoire we have, it will be interesting to see all the different ways that we can pool our ideas.”
Each of them enjoys a flourishing solo career: Beilman won, among other things, a Borlotti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship in 2014 and first prize plus People’s Choice award at the Montreal International Violin Competition in 2010. Tyson was a prizewinner in the Leeds International Piano Competition 2012 and scooped first prize at the Géza Anda Competition in Zürich in 2015.
Beilman continued his studies with Christian Tetzlaff at the Kronborg Academy in Germany and this eminent violinist remains his mentor in chief: “I love his willingness to break free of the mould and to take the meaning of the music to a different level,” he says.
Being represented by Young Concert Artists is hugely valuable, he agrees. “International competitions are very useful, chiefly because if you win the first or second prize, you have to bring a lot of repertoire to a very high level. But with YCA you win the competition and then immediately you gain practical experience. They have a vast network of presenters and performance opportunities; getting out there and doing a Brahms concerto, three or four weeks in a row, was the most practical experience I could possibly get.”
Their programme for the tour covers a wide range of music, beginning with Mozart’s warm, witty and dazzling Sonata in B flat major, K454: “What I love about this work, as with a lot of Mozart’s music, is that it has a beseeching quality, as if he’s saying, ‘Please adore this music, please love me!’”
Janáček’s only Violin Sonata offers a striking contrast, deeply personal and often very dark. “The Janáček Sonata’s second movement, the ‘Ballade’, is an unbelievable love story, but the entire piece is rooted in the sounds of nature. And the fourth movement is incredibly violent: the piano starts with a simple, singing melody and then the violin comes in with an almost battuto sound, like machine-gun fire. There’s a very touching, very personal moment – and then it’s sliced through.”
The second half pairs a new work by the Australian composer Jane Stanley with the Sonata No.1 by Saint-Saëns. “I love the timbres of Jane Stanley’s music,” says Beilman. “Many of her works that I’ve heard start from the depths of the instrument’s range and then emerge with an upward-looking, reflective gaze. The Saint-Saëns is the most flamboyant piece you can end with, so we thought it would be a good juxtaposition.”
Beilman is looking forward to returning to Musica Viva, having taken part in its inaugural chamber music festival a few years ago. “This festival combined chamber music from a number of different professionals across the field, but then there was also a youth orchestra component, so we were able to interact with some of the younger Australian musicians,” he says. “I spent ten days in Sydney and absolutely fell in love with it.” What he most enjoys there, he says, is “the music-making, the coffee and the audience!
“I felt I got a very good sample of what musical life is like in Australia; it feels extremely optimistic. I’m sure it has a lot to do with how Carl Vine programmes Musica Viva, but it does seem like the audiences want to absorb anything and everything you can throw at them. They listen very much with open ears.”
Benjamin Beilman and Andrew Tyson’s Australian tour spans three weeks and 10 cities. Book now at musicaviva.com.au/Beilman
Perth – 3 October, 7:30pm
Adelaide – 5 October, 7:30pm
Coffs Harbour – 7 October, 8:00pm
Armidale – 8 October, 4:00pm
Sydney – 10 October, 7:00pm
Newcastle – 13 October, 7:30pm
Sydney – 15 October, 2:00pm
Hobart – 17 October, 8:00pm
Brisbane – 19 October, 7:00pm
Canberra – 20 October, 7:00pm
Melbourne – 22 October, 7:00pm
Melbourne – 25 October, 7:00pm
The Jerusalem String Quartet, which celebrates its 21st birthday in 2016, has been one of the world’s most popular chamber ensembles throughout most of its performing life. So communicative is its warm, rich and eloquent tone, its energy and its sheer finesse that the public quickly took the group to its heart and has rarely let go.
The four musicians – violinists Alexander Pavlovsky and Sergei Bresler, violist Ori Kam and cellist Kyril Zlotnikov – are regular visitors to Musica Viva and Australia. “We used to tour Australia for Musica Viva for many, many years and we were quartet-in-residence for four or five years,” says first violin Alexander Pavlovsky, serving as the group’s spokesman. “When we were really young we would go for three weeks, sometimes even longer. Today it’s more difficult: we all have families, so we try to make our visits compact.”
The quartet’s members seem young already to have had such a long career; yet their real outset occurred earlier still. The original four met as teenagers – and only one player has changed since then (Amihai Grosz left in 2010 to become principal viola of the Berlin Philharmonic and Ori Kam took his place).
“I was 16 years old when we started to play together, and I was the oldest in the group,” Pavlovsky remembers. “From these very first lessons with our teacher in Jerusalem, we were so happy about playing chamber music together, but we never imagined we would continue for 20 years. We didn’t have any idea about how it was going to develop. Each of us was studying solo, but I think we were very lucky that our teachers understood quite quickly what was happening.
“The development of this group was something quite unique,” he adds. “Many times we’ve had professors saying, ‘Well, chamber music is great, but you have to concentrate on your own instrument’. That is important, I agree – but I think without focusing on chamber music it’s very difficult to become a musician. Not only a violinist or a cellist, but a musician. Chamber music opens the mind and, most importantly, you learn how to listen to each other, which is very rare.”
Support from the Jerusalem Music Centre was vital to their development, he says. “We could meet in Jerusalem all the best musicians in the world – great quartets and soloists too, like Isaac Stern. And of course the Amadeus String Quartet meant lot to us. We met three of its members and soon we were coming almost every year to London for their summer courses; we learnt so much from them. In 2015 Martin Lovett, the cellist, came to our concert in Amsterdam – we were so happy and surprised to see him!”
Photographer Felix Broede.
Their programmes for the 2016 tour offer a mix of repertoire from the classical, romantic and modern eras: from Haydn through Beethoven and Dvořák to a work by the Australian composer Ross Edwards, for whose music Pavlovsky has much enthusiasm.
“We once played his String Octet together with the Australian String Quartet and really enjoyed it,” he says. “He’s a fantastic composer, probably one of the most important in Australia, and has written a big variety of pieces in various genres: choirs, symphonies, operas, solo pieces. It’s rich and earthy music, with a lot of folk ideas, references to nature and poetry, and even something that reminds me of Jewish musical colours.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise, though, is that the quartet is now playing the first of Beethoven’s ‘Razumovsky’ Quartets, Op.59 No.1 – one of the composer’s most famous – for the first time. “We’ve been talking about it for years, but somehow we were always busy with something else,” Pavlovsky laughs. “That’s the great thing about the quartet repertoire.
“A quartet is complicated,” he reflects. “The most important thing is for the quartet to have its own voice: to feel that together you’re one instrument with 16 strings. But that does not mean that it’s always one instrument. We don’t want to lose the individuality of each member. We’re always talking about the feeling of one instrument, the blend of sound, the warmth of sound, without losing the individuality of every person, because we all are different. This is what we’re looking for. This process is endless.”
Trinity College Cambridge is an extraordinary institution, the alumni of which constitute a potted history of European civilisation. Science features high on the list with names like Isaac Newton, Niels Bohr, Lord Rayleigh and Charles Babbage, and since 1900 no fewer than 32 members of the college have received Nobel Prizes. But it’s hard to overlook other graduates like Francis Bacon, Bertrand Russell, Rajiv Gandhi, Wittgenstein, John Dryden, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, A.A. Milne and Vladimir Nabokov, to name just a few. It is fair to say that places at Trinity are keenly sought by the brightest students in the world.
From this heady mist of history and achievement emerges an extraordinary choir led by one of the great choral directors of our time, Stephen Layton, who chooses choristers on the basis of their passion and intelligence as much as for the qualities of their voice. The result is striking, marked by an overwhelming sense of musical intelligence that can almost be touched, with all of the requisite sensitivity and finesse to complete the picture.
This sensational group tours Australia for Musica Viva in July and August. In the spirit of capturing everything imaginable in the realm of choral music, Stephen has chosen for the tour a program spanning four centuries, from the immaculate marvels of Tallis and Byrd through to the modern Europeans, Rautavaara and Ešenvalds, we are granted an elite journey through the director’s musical universe. One path leads to “Wings of the Wind” composed by the college’s own organ scholar, Owain Park, who is rapidly emerging as a significant force in modern choral music.
The highest path on our expedition leads to the newest music on the program – the world premiere of a new work by Australian composer Joe Twist, “Hymn of Ancient Lands”, commissioned by Mary Pollard and family expressly for this concert tour.
Carl Vine AO
Touring Australia 17 July – 4 August. Book your tickets here: musicaviva.com.au/trinity
When you walk into the chapel of Trinity College Cambridge, you find yourself face to face with some of the greatest figures in UK history. Statues of the college’s most famous alumni stand near the entrance, among them Sir Isaac Newton and Alfred, Lord Tennyson; and the cool marble and warm wood of the chapel creates a glowing ambience in which the institution’s internationally celebrated choir rehearses and performs the music of composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Henry Purcell – and many more.
If Trinity’s past is top-notch, so is the present. State-of-the-art technology now makes it possible for the choir to webcast its performances live online; and its recordings, too, are made here, allowing the choir to be heard in commercial releases that capture the purity and richness of its sound and the atmosphere of its home enviornment.
The choir’s director, Stephen Layton, has an unrivalled reputation among conductors from the British choral tradition; indeed, you quickly realise that when he says that this music gives him “a reason to live”, he is not exaggerating. Born into modest circumstances on a council estate, Layton became a chorister at Winchester Cathedral as a young boy; later he won a full music scholarship to the famous Eton College and thence became organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge.
“Choirs like those in Oxford or Cambridge colleges and in cathedrals are singing, on a daily basis, music that’s been written over 5-600 years: music that’s always been there and is always happening,” Layton says. “It can’t be preserved just by manuscripts, it’s got to be preserved by performances.”
Relatively unusually, Trinity College’s choir of 30-odd students and young choristers includes girls as well as boys; and the selection of new students to join the ensemble depends, Layton says, on their mental agility, their commitment and their willingness to learn.
“I am looking for people who are quick-witted and sparky – and that doesn’t necessarily correlate to having a fabulous voice,” he says. “They might have a decent or average voice; there will always be some who have great voices, and you need that. But this is about teamwork. If you were to have a choir of Pavarottis, for instance, you’d have a terrible choir! I’m looking for interesting characters who will come together to make interesting music. It’s their interest and their imagination that’s the primary thing.”
Touring Australia with an ensemble of 30 young people might sound like a logistical challenge, but Layton’s enthusiasm proves that there is plenty to thrill them. “For some, it will be the first time that they’ve gone that far away from home. And I think for people from the UK there’s definitely a sense of wonder and excitement about travelling to that part of the world, certainly for a young person going for the first time. It doesn’t get much better than staring out from Circular Quay into Sydney Harbour.
“I enjoy going to Australia because I love sharing British choral music with audiences and I want to advocate the music that’s come from this country,” he adds. “It’s an extraordinary thing to walk onto the stage of a big Australian concert hall in front of 2,500 people and sing Tallis and Byrd. That’s what I live for, and in a way the further away and more different the place is, the more exciting it becomes.” He adds: “There are also some extremely good Chardonnays from the Margaret River area!”
The choir’s eclectic programme extends from the great Renaissance works of Byrd and Tallis through Purcell, Elgar and Herbert Howells to the substantial Mass by Frank Martin, which forms a centrepiece; then there are contemporary works by such luminaries as Arvo Pärt, Ēriks Ešenvalds, Einojuhani Rautavaara and Eric Whitacre, a specially commissioned piece by the Australian composer Joe Twist, and one by Trinity College’s young organ scholar, Owain Park, who, remarkably, already has a publishing contract with Chester Novello.
The programmes, Layton says, aim “to draw together the old and the new – and to confuse the boundaries between them. I find that a fascinating journey. That is why we begin with the music of Pärt; he’s a very interesting figure whose approach combines elements of old and new. I believe that in 100 years time we’ll look back at Pärt and see that he was actually a father figure for a certain soundworld that has lived on and that people will want to hear forever. It’s very appropriate that he should kick off a programme celebrating the fusion between what we’ve had, what we’re having now and, indeed, what lies ahead.”
The Choir of Trinity College Cambridge tour Australia 17 July – 4 August. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/trinity
Perhaps it is the line over the ō that first suggests the Ensō String Quartet is not quite like any other chamber ensemble. From its home base in New York City, the rise and rise of the group and its reputation has been attended by much excitement, with The Strad magazine declaring it “thrilling” and the Washington Post praising “glorious sonorities”. And its name unites the four players via the symbol not of a person or place, but of an ideal.
It was during their first summer working together that they stumbled across the Japanese Zen painting of the circle and responded strongly to its symbolism. “We were rehearsing at Maureen’s parents place and we found it in a dictionary of Eastern terminology,” the cellist Richard Belcher recalls. “The idea of a continuous circle seemed a wonderful representation of what we’re trying to do. It’s as Zen as you want to go. The fullness of the circle, with all its stability, perfection and imperfection: we love that as an image for music in general, but also specifically for a quartet.”
The ensemble – Belcher, violinists Maureen Nelson and Ken Hamao and violist Melissa Reardon – between them boast roots from many corners of the globe; Belcher is from Christchurch, New Zealand, while Hamao is Japanese-American; Reardon’s mother hails from the Philippines and Nelson is half Korean. The original four met as students at Yale University and formed their quartet in 1999; Hamao joined as second violinist more recently, a process they describe as “remarkably smooth”.
Early influences on their playing included some of the most renowned string quartets in the world. The Guarneri Quartet inspired Nelson when she was a student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia; the whole group was mentored by the Tokyo Quartet at Yale; and a residency at Illinois University brought them vital tuition from the Vermeer Quartet. “We spent two years with them,” Belcher says. “The university is in the middle of the cornfields and there’s not much else to do except focus on what you’re there for, which was a lot of string quartets! That was really an incredible time and helped to establish a strong base for our playing.”
String quartets, they agree, offer a unique approach to making music. “It’s a kind of ideal democracy,” Reardon suggests. Hamao adds: “It’s the most human of interactions. In concertos, there’s a little bit of ‘me versus them’. In orchestras you follow a leader, which is one type of society, but you don’t have a voice. Here we all have a voice, as beautiful and as difficult as it can be.”
“The repertoire is spectacular and unique,” says Reardon. “Many composers wrote arguably some of their best music for the string quartet medium. There’s also the sense of communication and camaraderie that you have with your colleagues: you’re talking, arguing, fighting and laughing during the working process. And as a violist, the most rewarding repertoire is the quartet literature, because we get to play things like Beethoven, which we don’t have as soloists.”
For the Musica Viva tour, the quartet has selected two programmes covering a substantial amount of musical ground – no surprise for an ensemble that loves to explore the byways as well as the highways of its repertoire. First there is a new commission for them from the Australian composer Brenton Broadstock: “We’re thrilled about it,” says Belcher. “Touring Australia with a brand-new piece from one of Australia’s best-respected composers is going to be an amazing experience.”
Alongside this, they will play the Beethoven ‘Harp’ Quartet, Op. 74 – “the most stunning, inspirational piece, with an epic quality to it,” says Belcher. One programme matches music by the Spanish composer Turina with a quartet by Ginastera, one of Argentina’s leading 20th-century figures – Nelson describes the latter as resembling “south-of-the-border Bartók”. The second programme features an arrangement by Nelson herself of music from the Renaissance era: “I love playing early music, but the string quartet repertoire doesn’t have any,” she points out. The line-up concludes with the exquisitely beautiful sole quartet by Ravel.
How do they relax on tour? “We eat!” they chorus. “This Australian trip is something we’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” Belcher adds. “Any time you can go to new places with such an esteemed organisation as Musica Viva is going to be pretty thrilling.”
Ensō String Quartet tours Australia30 May – 18 June. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/enso