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.”
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
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