Brentano String Quartet interview part 2

Misha Amory

Certainly a common curiosity as well as Jiulliard’s rigourous technical training drew the quartet members together when the ensemble was founded in 1992. The line-up has remained constant apart from one change, when cellist Nina Lee replaced founder member Michael Kannen in 1998. Kannen is present in Amory’s apartment when we meet, an amiable visitor, proving that the quartet is nothing if not good at maintaining relationships.

Amory and Steinberg’s lively dialogue also reveals a fundamental ease with one another, and both are quick to list friendship as one of their favourite aspects of quartet life.

“We’re lucky,” says Steinberg. “We’ve been together nearly 20 years now, and we’re still good friends. We have a great time when we travel and work together, and it’s fun. I actually feel that being with other people makes the stress of travel a little less hard, because you can laugh about it.”

“It’s definitely an exercise in how to interact,” agrees Amory. “How to accommodate and yet make yourself heard at the same time in way that is OK for the people involved – it’s very close to relationship counselling. It’s almost like a marriage.”

It is also a kind of musical truth, in that the same ability to listen to others but make yourself heard is fundamental to quartet playing.

“You could say that there’s a subconscious layer,” reflects Amory. “For years now we’ve heard each other’s sounds, and without even realising it, that has influenced us, and changed our way of making sound. Without a decision being consciously made, we have rubbed off on each other. The individual is changed, and then puts that back into the group, and the group gets changed. And around and around in a cycle.”

That thought is a product of my asking the men if they knew from the beginning what kind of quartet they wanted to become. Today, the Brentano is quickly identifiable in a crowded market, not just for the vibrant intensity of their musical expression, but also for their penchant for expanding the quartet repertoire in both directions – back into the renaissance era through their transcriptions of early vocal and instrumental music, as well as forwards into the future through their love of new music and eagerness to collaborate with composers.

Steinberg argues that he still doesn’t know what kind of quartet the Brentano is.

“Right now we’re starting to learn a Haydn quartet. We’ve played 10 or 12 Haydn quartets before, and we have a certain shared idea of what Haydn sounds like. But that’s not enough – we have to go further. What we’re trying to do is to figure out what the piece is saying and how we can best translate that into sound. That’s all.

“And the identity of the quartet, I think, is made up of the myriad decisions that happen every minute of rehearsal. Over time, these make a voice for the quartet. It comes from dealing with what’s right there in the room as you’re playing.”

In Australia, the quartet will play Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart, but also works by Gibbons and Byrd, and a brand new work by Ian Munro. It all ties in to a whole in the end, says Steinberg.

“Whenever we do something unusual, like reaching back to the Renaissance, we’re put out of our comfort zone. We have to rediscover a way of playing together, and we have to experiment quite a lot.

“Even in Gesualdo’s time, instrumental music is really vocal music. We study the words and their meaning, and that influences how we articulate phrases.

“So we find a sound we haven’t used before, and then in the middle of a Beethoven quartet, I might say, ‘Remember that sound we got in the third phrase of the Gesualdo? Can we try something like that here?’ And it starts to cross-pollinate, and we make discoveries.”

Both say they look forward to working with Ian Munro, especially after the rewarding experience of giving Ross Edwards’ fourth string quartet its world premiere on their last tour for Musica Viva.

“I think we all started out being interested in working with composers out of curiosity,” says Steinberg. “And out of excitement. If we are working on a Haydn quartet, I always wish we could e-mail Haydn, and say, ‘What were you thinking when you wrote this? What do you want us to do?’ Because there are so many questions, always. And there’s something very private about working with the person who wrote the piece you’re playing, and hearing what he or she has to say about it, and seeing the reactions. That, in turn, inspires the way we work with composers who are no longer around.”

Steinberg and Amory have listened to several of Munro’s existing works. But neither would say they can identify particularly Australian characteristics in the country’s new music, though Edwards did spend time with them explaining the Australian influences in his music.

“It’s exciting to be part of the genesis of a new work,” says Steinberg.

“It enriches us to play Australian music in Australia,” adds Amory.

“And it’s nice that Australian people trust us to do that,” Steinberg continues.

“It shows a lot of nerve!” concludes Amory.

The two musicians laugh, and bid me a swift journey back to the airport.

I leave with a sense of delight. I did not see the Empire State Building, but I did glimpse the richness of New York’s musical heritage.

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About Musica Viva Australia

Welcome to Musica Viva’s International Concert Season blog. Here you can follow and read more about our wonderful touring artists.

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