On The Vine – Jan 2014 – Kelemen Quartet
The longest viola joke in the world, according to some wits (or perhaps half of them), is Berlioz’s Harold In Italy. This dullish barb insults Berlioz both as composer of his second symphony, and also as a noted violist himself. He is in good company as a composing violist however, with J. S. Bach, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart also being fine violists who enjoyed playing their own chamber music. It is clear that the ‘middle line’, epitomised by the viola, is rather a good thing for composers to focus on.
Violas are an easy target for music humour – they only get to carry flashy melody lines on rare occasions; being larger than violins can give the impression of being somehow less agile; and are sometimes adopted by players who found competition for violin positions too demanding. Like the best joke butts, however, there is little truth in the telling, otherwise violists wouldn’t find them funny along with everyone else.
I am reminded of viola jokes because of the first chamber group touring for Musica Viva’s International Concert Season in 2014. All four members of the Kelemen Quartet have, at some stage, played the viola. This might help explain the powerful sense of unity in the group, reinforced by the tight family bonds that made its formation virtually inevitable. Long before violinist Barnabás married violist Katalin, they played string trios as children with Katalin’s sister Dóra, now the group’s cellist. The prize student of Barnabás and Katalin at the Franz Liszt Academy was Gábor Homoki, now the second violinist of the quartet, and godfather to their two children.
But this group opens our 2014 International Concert Season because of its players’ incredible invention and sense of purpose, which they proudly attribute to the Austro-Hungarian national school of music, traceable in direct lineage back to Franz Liszt. So naturally Bartók figures large in their lives, with his fourth and fifth quartets forming centrepieces for the two programs of this tour.
Haydn (opus 20 no 2), Beethoven (opus 59 no 3) and Tchaikovsky (quartet no 3) colour a broad and varied canvas upon which to sample the full extent of the group’s abilities, alongside the world premiere of a new Australian work: Kim Williams AM has kindly commissioned for Musica Viva a third string quartet by Ross Edwards, in memory of Ken Tribe AC. The new work, “Summer Dances”, is inspired like much of Ross’s recent music by the sounds and sensations of Australian nature, and by a range of ritual aspects of human life that these evoke in the composer. The Kelemen Quartet has not encountered Edwards’ music before, and is eager to share its discoveries within this new music with audiences across Australia.
It is only reasonable that violas get the last laugh here. So for any of you who were wondering about the real difference between the first and last desk of a viola section, the answer, apparently, is a semitone.