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
In Zen Buddhism, an ensō is a hand-drawn circle expressing the moment when the mind is free to let the body create. This is the challenging paradigm chosen by an extraordinary American ensemble to exemplify its performances.
We first invited the Ensō String Quartet to visit Australia in 2012 to attend the Huntington Estate Music Festival. Its festival performances were so exhilarating that we immediately asked the quartet to return for its debut national concert tour, which runs from 30 May through to mid July.
The Ensō Quartet received its first Grammy Award nomination for an album of music by Alberto Ginastera, so it seemed appropriate to include that fine composer’s second string quartet in the first tour program, forming a little Hispanic enclave alongside Turina’s Serenata for String Quartet op 87. The second program features Ravel’s peerless String Quartet of 1903, introduced by a Renaissance medley arranged by the group’s first violinist, Maureen Nelson.
The first half of both programs concludes with Beethoven’s masterful and optimistic ‘Harp’ Quartet Op 74, which the group’s cellist Richard Belcher calls “the most stunning, inspirational piece, with an epic quality to it”. The centrepiece of this tour for me, however, is the work that opens every concert – new music by celebrated Australian composer Brenton Broadstock written expressly for this purpose.
‘Safe Haven’ is a reflection on the true story of a child refugee fleeing wartime Hungary to seek sanctuary in Australia. It is a set of variations on a popular Hungarian nursery song, set in three sections – Escape, Through A Child’s Eyes and Safe Haven. The end of at least this one particular refugee story is a happy one.
Carl Vine AO
Ensō String Quartet tour Australia 30 May – 18 June. Book your tickets here: www.musicaviva.com.au/enso
British-Australian pianist Stephen Hough undertakes his third national concert tour for Musica Viva in April and May. His recitals are invariably distinguished by a surprising blend of the cerebral and the visceral – music that engages the heart as well as the mind, and that is delivered with precise yet entirely organic artistry.
On this concert tour Stephen’s program focuses on a trinity of his favourite composers, Schubert, Franck and Liszt. Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784 is in three movements, as is Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, and these two works form for Hough a linked musical journey from darkness to light.
It is easy to forget the seminal influence that Liszt’s music had on the evolution of compositional technique in the 19th century. Like Hough, Liszt was a remarkable pianist as well as an extraordinary composer, and his music has inspired Stephen as a committed advocate of its performance, as well as by the craftsmanship of its structure.
The glue of the program is Stephen’s own Third Piano Sonata ‘Trinitas’, inspired by the importance of the number three within his Catholic faith, and how ‘trinity’ in the church might also possibly relate to 12-tone serialism in music. As one should always expect with this surprising musician, matters of the intellect are bound to resonate with the emotional and the personal in his perpetual search for the transcendental.
Carl Vine AO
Stephen Hough tours Australia 14 April – 2 May 2016. Book your tickets here: musicaviva.com.au/hough
Stephen Hough is a familiar visitor to Australia’s concert halls – and this much-loved British pianist has a fascinating story to tell about his own Antipodean roots. But then, everything about Hough is fascinating. He explores a vast range of repertoire, records prolifically for the Hyperion label and enjoys lively chamber music relationships with such artists as the cellist Steven Isserlis, with whom he has toured twice for Musica Viva. His artistic activities extend to composition, painting and writing – he has been named one of ‘20 Living Polymaths’ by The Economist – and he is now working on a novel. Indeed, he has evolved almost accidentally into the modern-day equivalent of the great “golden age” composer-pianists of the past.
Far from finding his intense travel schedule as a performer a hindrance to creativity, Hough seems to thrive on it. “I find being on the road is actually more creative than being at home,” he says. “I might get musical ideas while warming up backstage. And often there is more time on tour: for instance, with American orchestras if I have three concerts in a week, the second and third nights I have nothing to do until the evening concert except practise. If I have a piece to write I assemble sketches throughout the year, all the time; finally comes the moment when I sit down and put it all together.”
Hough’s programme for his Musica Viva tour includes his own latest piano work, the Sonata No.3, ‘Trinitas’ – which follows in his output hot on the heels of two other sonatas, the first of which was co-commissioned by Musica Viva, the Wigmore Hall in London and the Louvre in Paris.
Initially, he says, he had not been eager to write music to perform himself – but gradually this outlook has altered. “What’s funny is that I hadn’t been planning to do that,” he says. “But the commission of the Sonata No.1 started me off, and I think I got over that point.” He enjoys the fact that other pianists are playing his works now, but he also likes “having control over the performance myself”.
The Sonata No.3 qualifies as an Australian piece, he half-jokes, because he has an Australian passport. He grew up in Cheshire in the north of England and discovered his Australian connection relatively late. “My father was born in Australia,” he explains. “His parents were married in India, where they were involved in the steel business in India; they then went to Newcastle, New South Wales, where the Australian steel industry was based. My father was born in 1926, and then my grandmother took him back to India after a few months. He never saw his father again. His father tried to correspond with him, but his mother intercepted the letters and they did not make contact until much later.
“I found that I was already Australian by law, because if someone was born there before 1947, it made their children automatically Australian. Getting an Australian passport seemed a nice way to tie together the loose ends of a slightly tragic story.”
In the new sonata, commissioned jointly by the Catholic magazine The Tablet and the Barbican Centre, Hough – whose Catholic faith is a driving force in his creativity – has been inspired by the symbolism of the number three and what he sees as the parallel dogmas of the Trinity in the church and of 12-tone serialism in music.
It forms part of a programme that begins with Schubert’s A minor Sonata D784, one of the composer’s most concentrated and tragic piano works. “The whole first half is a progression from darkness to light,” Hough says. “In the Schubert there almost isn’t any light at all. Even when it goes into the major, it’s more heart-breaking than it is in the minor. Then the Franck Prelude, Chorale and Fugue is an incredible, deep-suffering piece that, at the end, has an amazing opening-out: you really do come out of the darkness.
“There’s a triptych idea behind this as well: the three-movement Schubert, the Franck in three parts, and my sonata being the ‘Trinitas’. Then there is Liszt: I feel a very strong connection myself with Liszt because I play so much of his music, but also between Liszt and Schubert because Liszt’s transcriptions brought Schubert’s song literature to a wider audience.”
And so the programme comes full circle – rather like Hough’s Australian connection. “I love going to Australia,” he remarks. “I love the quality of the light and the space – not just geographical, but also artistic. The traditions there are much less lengthy and ‘stuck’. There’s room to feel that you can bring this music and it’s fresh and new.”
Stephen Hough tours Australia for Musica Viva 14 April – 2 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/hough
Richard Mills, the Artistic Director of Victorian Opera, called me in January 2013 to see if there was a way our two companies could work together. Victorian Opera had developed an enviable reputation for mounting unusual but very successful new opera productions, but had no experience in touring interstate. Musica Viva has 70 years’ experience in touring performers around the country, but no infrastructure to create performances with a heavy theatrical element. A mountain of synergy was waiting at the juncture of these two companies, and three years later we can finally enjoy the result.
It took many months to fasten on the idea of a Baroque pasticcio opera – an original operatic scenario using carefully chosen pre-existing Baroque music to plump out its drama. This way we could keep the size of the touring party to a known, manageable level and ensure the highest quality of source music while still presenting a production with exciting new characteristics. More months rushed by as we sought a team of writer and director who had the requisite time available, could work together well and would be utterly committed to the project. After a few false starts, but to our great good fortune, the team arose in just one person: the incredibly talented playwright and director Michael Gow.
Form the outset Michael was enthusiastic about the pasticcio, had a great love of Baroque opera in general and considerable personal knowledge of the field. Even at our very first program meeting he mentioned an interest in using “moon” imagery in some way during the production, and that he was looking at a passage from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic 16th century poem Orlando Furioso. This notion matured into a fully-fledged original theatrical treatment that, through a series of workshops with the wonderful cast we’d assembled, became custom tailored for the personality and talent of each singer.
Welcome to the first production of 2016 by both Victorian Opera and Musica Viva. It is a great thrill for all of us to be working together and to find ourselves in virgin territory, on our way to the moon.
Carl Vine AO
Voyage to the Moon tours nationally 15 February – 12 March 2016. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit:www.musicaviva.com.au/voyage
Voyage to the Moon may be opera as you’ve never heard it before – but its guiding principle would not have been unfamiliar in the 18th century. Baroque “pasticcio” (pastiche) operas consisted of music by several different composers, selected and brought together to suit a story and its performers. Such creations have long been out of fashion, but today the tide is turning and their potential for appealing to modern audiences is being explored by various companies, not least the Melbourne-based Victorian Opera and national arts organisation Musica Viva.
“Pasticcio suits us, as it did the entrepreneurs of the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Phoebe Briggs, Victorian Opera’s head of music. “It gives us a new piece suited to touring and co-production, and it offers flexibility in that the music can be chosen from a variety of composers. While the style is essentially the same throughout, each individual musical item will bring something special and slightly different to the piece.”
The brand-new pasticcio opera Voyage to the Moon therefore unites arias by Handel, Vivaldi and many more in an off-the-wall tale of madness, marvels, magic and healing. Its libretto is by the Australian playwright and director Michael Gow and the score was largely compiled by the musicologist Alan Curtis, one of the towering figures behind the revival of Handel’s operas in recent decades. Alan was appointed to create the score by Professor Jane Davidson who leads the Performance Program of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; a partner for Voyage to the Moon.
Tragedy intervened. Alan Curtis died suddenly in July 2015 while still hard at work on the piece. He had completed the lion’s share; the last stages have been completed by the Australian musicologist Calvin Bowman. The present writer was lucky enough to be in touch with Curtis only days before he passed away; with no hint of malady, he offered a spirited, fascinating interview overflowing with enthusiasm.
“I grew up equating ‘pasticcio’ with ‘hodge-podge’ and treating both terms as derogatory,” Curtis related. “Perhaps it was a memorable dish of ‘pasticcio di lasagna’ in a fine restaurant in Venice back in the 1960s that first suggested to me another point of view. But more seriously, it was Reinhard Strohm’s fine chapter on Handel’s pasticci in his book on 18th-century opera that first strongly aroused my interest.”
Voyage to the Moon, he added, was “the first pasticcio I have ever composed – though my half-century and more of conducting Baroque opera often led me to deal with many of the same problems: finding arias and ensembles to suit a particular situation and composing, in various styles, any parts that might be missing.”
The process resembled a game of musical ping-pong, batting words and music back and forth. “Michael Gow sends me words, though usually not yet the final ones,” Curtis said. “They often almost at once give me ideas which I then try to put down on paper. The recitatives and ariosi are mine; the arias, duets and trios are all by mid-18th-century composers: Handel and Vivaldi, of course, but also Telemann and various Italians, especially Neapolitans such as ‘Ciccio’ de Majo. I send suggestions to Michael and if he agrees that the aria is appropriate we both set about fitting his text to the existing music, sometimes by altering the music a bit, sometimes by changing the text.”
But why not simply perform an existing baroque opera? Curtis picked out several areas in which “pasticcio” might even have the edge over traditional baroque opera for 21st-century audiences. “Certainly the possibility of making the plot easier to understand, or more relevant, is worth considering,” he said, “but there is also the freedom to revive what, although often abused, was not in itself such a bad idea: the possibility to choose arias that particularly suit the available singers.
“An even more important advantage, to my mind, is the possibility of reducing the recitative to a minimum. Even the best baroque operas often come with acres of arid recitative that can be boring. This remains a major obstacle to the successful revival of most baroque opera.”
Curtis is sorely missed. Michael Gow pays warm tribute to his work. “Alan was incredibly generous with his knowledge and experience and staggering in his familiarity with the music of this period,” he says. “We hit it off straight away and the emails that flew between here and [his home in] Florence were full of great ideas, insights, wonderful asides into history and life.” Phoebe Briggs joins the appreciation: “Alan was absolutely delightful to work with,” she says. “He had so much to offer, and such a vast knowledge of the repertoire; it was a joy to see him so excited about the project.”
Finally, Gow encourages you to come and hear Voyage to the Moon, even if you’ve never seen anything like it before. “You will hear some great music you’ve never heard before, sometimes by composers you’ve never heard of, performed by three wonderful singers who are also very good actors,” he smiles. “It’s the best of both worlds: theatre and music.”
Voyage to the Moon tours nationally 15 February – 12 March 2016. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/voyage
Australia has played a special part in the life of the Eggner Trio. Ever since its 2003 victory at the Melbourne International Chamber Music competition, the trio has made regular journeys Down Under.
“This was a fantastic miracle for us, that it worked out in Melbourne, and that there is a continuation,” says Christoph Eggner, the trio’s pianist. “This will be our fourth tour for Musica Viva; and each time it feels like coming home.”
On almost every trip, Australian repertoire has played a central role in the group’s repertoire. For 2015, the brothers have chosen Dulcie Holland’s 1944 trio.
“We played Ian Munro’s trio last time, and he said that we should check out Dulcie Holland. We listened to many different composers, and finally we were so fond of Dulcie Holland, because it’s a really good composition. It’s one big impressionistic crescendo.
“The musical language comes from the late Romantic period. It’s very meditative, but at the same time, the development through the movements is constant; and the end is one fantastic climax.”
The idea of one woman composer lead to thoughts of another; Clara Schumann’s 1877 piano trio seemed an obvious companion piece.
“Clara Schumann was 26 years old when she composed that piano trio,” says Eggner. “The situation between Robert and Clara was, from today’s point of view, really pretty hard. Clara was pregnant almost all the time; it must have been tough for her. On the other hand she was an extremely famous pianist. Her father was absolutely against Robert, so it was a long fight, and she was caught between them – emotionally it must have been a horrible disaster. They were often moving apartments. Then Robert became really sick, so it was chaos. And then you have this lovely trio, full of humour – it just puts everything into perspective. Of course the first movement is pretty dramatic, but then you have music that is like balsam for the soul. The slow movement is the highlight of the whole trio.”
Eggner does not subscribe to the theory that women write a different kind of music from that written by men.
“I never have the feeling that there is anything typically male about music written by men. I think Clara was writing at a turning-point in musical history – it was the beginning of some sort of emancipation, a social self-awareness for women and their role.”
For their tour programmes, the trio has paired Clara Schumann’s calm music with the tortured score of Robert Schumann’s 1851 third piano trio, a work composed when the author was depressive and syphilitic.
“It’s an unruly piece, not easy,” says Eggner. “I don’t think he suffered from bipolar disorder. I think he was just a normal, busy man, and later, when his illness emerged more and more, he started to change.
“The madness is not easy to follow. It’s a sort of organised chaos. Sometimes he demands impossible things – like one piano piece where he writes, ‘play as fast as you can,’ and then a few bars later he writes, ‘faster.’ He is constantly working on the edge of what is possible.
“There are of course lovely moments in this trio, but there is always this swing from one extreme to the other, and the grey zones in between. And the later you go with Schumann, the more grey you find.
“We really want to show the audience that there are pieces that might not be easy to listen to, but are absolutely worth hearing.”
“Schumann’s music invites you to go right to the edge. And when you are in front of an audience, you can push even further. You want to make music with 150%, which means that there is a high danger that something can go wrong. We want to communicate the composer’s message, and we enjoy taking risks.”
Risk entails an inevitability of failure, at least occasionally.
“It’s more important to convey the message than it is to play perfectly,” says Eggner. “I think the idea of playing perfectly is a 20th-century notion. I think people used to be more focussed on the message.
“Of course taking risks does not mean that you will always make mistakes. Even if we are jet-lagged or unwell, our minimum standard should always be as high as possible, and our failures are usually so small that most of the audience will not hear them.
“In the end, I don’t care about mistakes. They happen so quickly that the best thing you can do is to let them go. The music goes on, and you need to concentrate on what is coming next.”
After the concert, Eggner notes, the situation is different; the trio will go back over the evening’s events in minute detail, analyse the slips, and work hard on the passages to reduce the chance of a repeated mishap.
Quality, one of Musica Viva’s four core values, is central to the trio’s work.
“We understand quality to mean high-level music-making. Our quality lies in the cleanliness and precision of our playing, and of how we transport the message of the music to the audience. We want people to be able to recognise what the composer meant because of the way we play it.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
The Eggner Trio tour Australia 7 November – 21 November. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetEggner