An Interview with Modigliani Quartet

Modigliani SQ

Ask the members of a string quartet one by one to describe each other, and the results are bound to range from touching to riotous.

After eleven years on the international stage as a professional string quartet, the young members of the Modigliani Quartet know each other intimately. Each of them finds a parallel to one of Musica Viva’s four core values in describing the nature of the others.

Violist Laurent Marfaing sees the value of quality as an expression of the way his ensemble’s members work with each other.

“I guess our quality lies in the pleasure we have in playing together – because that’s what we decided to do eleven years ago.”

Cellist François Kieffer, he says, plays a similar role in real life to that of his musical line in most string quartets.

“He’s really organised, and he draws the line – you just have to follow it.”

First violinist Philippe Bernhard, he says, also lives as he plays.

“He’s really passionate and sometimes eccentric, and really youthful, with lots of life. He will always surprise you with things – he likes to take risks.”

That, says Marfaing, is well balanced by the reliability of second violinist Loïc Rio: “He is a truly wise person. You can count on him, always, because he will always be there.”

Kieffer, from his place as cellist, has similar yet subtly different views of his colleagues.

“Philippe is the first violin, and I’m very touched by his playing. He’s very instinctive and talented, and I like the way he manages the music. Loïc is very intellectual, and always tries to inspire the others. He brings an interesting view of each score. And Laurent, for me, is an untroubled man – very calm. I like his sound. And it’s very important to have a solid man in the quartet.”

Diversity, to Kieffer, is the value his quartet best reflects.

“We are in the same quartet, but we are not the same. We have different lives – and that makes the group very rich.”

For second violinist Rio, it is the value of challenge that sparks a flame of recognition.

“A string quartet is a unique kind of organisation in today’s world. We don’t have a boss, and we work the same way that people worked 200 years ago. The challenge for us is to be able to continue this way together for as long as we can – to continue the adventure, and keep the career alive together.”

As if to demonstrate his point, he chooses descriptions of his colleagues that vary substantially from those of his peers.

“As first violinist, Philippe is sensitive, and quite emotional, and somewhat obsessive, but that’s great. He’s the first thing people hear, the voice of the quartet, in a way. A complex, interesting person.

“On the other side of the quartet, our cellist François is very intense, and takes his job extremely seriously. And Laurant is the caring one. I think he cares a lot about the family group of the quartet. He looks after the small things that require attention, everywhere, all the time, in the quartet’s life. When we play, you can see it in the way he looks at us.”

The quartet’s leader, Bernhard, sees a different side to violist Marfaing.

“Laurant is the relaxed one. He brings peace to the group. François is the clever one, the ambitious one. He wants us to go far. And I would say that Loïc is the culture of the quartet. Very cultivated. He is the real lover of the string quartet repertoire, and the one who dreams about it. He always thinks about repertoire, and what wonderful pieces we could play.”

Which makes him think about Musica Viva’s fourth core value, that of joy.

“We have a lot of joy together, you know? That’s the nice thing about a string quartet – you share everything. Of course you share the hard things as well, but we have so many extremely joyful moments together, and that’s a value that’s constantly here for us. We are like brothers. So we fight like brothers too, of course, but we experience a lot of joy when we play pieces we love together.”

All the players are unconditionally enthusiastic at the prospect of returning to Australia to tour for Musica Viva four years after their first tour with clarinettist Sabine Meyer.

“It was one of the most beautiful tours we ever made,” says Bernhard.

“To come back, for us, is very important,” adds Rio.

The Haydn and Schubert on the quartet’s tour programmes are pieces that lie well within the quartet’s core repertoire.

“We love Haydn,” says Bernhard. “He is one of the first composers on whom we actually worked deeply as a quartet, while we were creating our personality, our sound signature. He’s very inventive, with a lot of humour – that’s why we were drawn to him.

“Haydn left a huge repertoire of masterpieces, so we won’t have enough lifetime to play all the beautiful quartets we’d like to. Instead, we have to make choices, and that’s always exciting.”

Modigliani SQ

The Schubert works, says Rio, provide a contrast.

“They’re very intense, and constantly changing moods and colours. You never know if you are happy or sad. But it’s so beautiful.”

Beethoven, by contrast, has not yet featured prominently in the Modigliani Quartet’s concerts.

“We are still building up our repertoire. The Beethoven quartets are a big challenge for a quartet, but our approach is to start with the early works, and some of the middle period. Then we try to extend the repertoire.”

With Ernst von Dohnanyi’s third string quartet, the group makes a geographical diversion to the United States, where the Hungarian composer wrote the piece.

“The music is very dynamic,” says Marfaing. “It’s not as modern as Bartok – he didn’t re-invent musical language – but it’s very eloquent. We love this quartet.”

Nigel Westlake’s second string quartet will be the quartet’s second venture into Australian repertoire.

“It’s a really, really good piece,” says Marfaing. “I think he was inspired by Bartok – it’s interesting to compare.”

“There are only advantages when you can work with living composers,” adds Kieffer. “Haydn, Beethoven, Bach – they all worked very closely with musicians, which influenced their way of writing. Composers all know that the life has a certain life of its own when it comes into the hands of the musicians. And that’s a wonderful moment.”

Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders

Modigliani Quartet tour Australia 5 October – 17 October. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetModigliani 

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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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