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.”
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
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
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
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.”
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
Choosing musicians for the International Concert Season is always a judicious balance between artists who are well known and much loved, and those new to Australian audiences but who deserve the chance to be heard. When we first presented the Modigliani Quartet on national tour in 2011 they were completely unknown here, and appeared as part of a musical marriage that we had engineered with the impeccable German clarinettist Sabine Meyer.
To the great good fortune of everyone involved they got on incredibly well and made some magical music together. Since then the group’s international stature and musical prowess have continued to evolve, and we welcome back an even more confident and mature ensemble to conduct their first tour unaccompanied this October.
The group is presenting two diverse programs that revolve around a remarkable Australian composition – Nigel Westlake’s masterful Second String Quartet, commissioned by Kenneth Tribe AC in 2005. Each starts with a Haydn quartet (nos 36 and 42 respectively) and includes a Schubert Quartet (nos 10 and 12). The closing works are vastly different – Beethoven’s Eleventh Quartet (op 95) and Dohnányi’s Third.
Beethoven’s ‘Serioso’ Quartet precedes by a decade the famous collection of ‘Late Quartets’ that form such a compelling compendium of the great man’s last few years of creation. It is, even so, a radical work that the composer himself considered too experimental for general consumption, though now it sounds not only convincing but also deeply satisfying. Dohnányi wrote only three quartets, which are rarely performed, and it is gratifying to see the finest and last of these championed by a group as talented as the Modigliani Quartet.
Carl Vine AO
Modigliani Quartet tour Australia 5 October – 17 October. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/Modigliani
A circus artist suspended between heaven and earth on a narrow ribbon. A capella vocal music. A cathedral. What do these things have in common?
Everything, to I Fagiolini. That particular match of elements was the vision of Perth Festival director Jonathan Holloway, and it brought the British vocal ensemble to Australia for the first time in 2012. “How Like An Angel”, which brought I Fagiolini together with Brisbane-based acrobat group Circa, went on to tour UK cathedrals to thundering applause.
“I think the way we look at music is interesting,” says group director Robert Hollingworth. “As far as the brand of British renaissance music groups is concerned, we’re not a very British group. Perhaps we are closer to British theatre than we are to British renaissance vocal groups. We’re certainly very British in that we’re good at innovation, and at seeing things in an unusual way.”
Mainland Europe, says Hollingworth, is often bemused by his ensemble’s lack of conformity to their expectations of a stiff-upper-lip formality.
“I’m interested in music with a social context. I like looking at music that was written for special occasions or to amuse people, because it tells you a lot about how people listened to music and a bit about the social setting.”
Other past projects have included “The Full Monteverdi”, a dramatized madrigal evening set in a restaurant around the idea of six couples breaking up, and “Tallis in Wonderland”, a performance/sound installation that theatrically deconstructs the concept of polyphony.
For their inaugural Musica Viva tour, Hollingworth plans to dramatise two central works: Giovanni Croce’s “Il gioco dell’Occa”, or “The Game of the Goose”, and Clement Janequin’s “La Chasse” (“The Hunt”), a viscerally descriptive and somewhat scatalogical account of a deer hunt.
“The Game of the Goose is a board game which you can still buy in shops in Europe today. We’ve done a simple staging of that, with people playing the board game.
“In the Janequin, we only meet the animal at the very end. We spend most of the piece looking for him, and finding his droppings, and seeing what state they’re in. Coiled nicely, and steaming, which means he’s in a good state. It’s full of sound effects, dogs barking, horses’ hooves, so it’s quite good fun. It’s a nightmare to memorize – I think we’re the only group ever to have done that.”
For Hollingworth, the drive to present musical works in dramatic stagings comes from the urge to communicate their content more effectively.
“There’s that Thomas Beecham quote: ‘The English don’t like music; just the noise it makes.’ We try to get people to really involve themselves in the whole piece. I think a huge issue for choral groups, given that we spend a lot of time in the 16th century, is accepting the fact that most of this music was not written to be sat down and listened to. It might have been written for a social context, or for the pleasure of those singing it, which is quite a different thing, or to be performed in church. And polyphony, of its very nature, is difficult to follow. My life in the last years has been trying to work out how to present this music to an audience so that they can get inside it.”
Though perfect intonation is important to I Fagiolini, to the extent that they spend considerable amounts of time on tuning perfect intervals, the passion of the moment in a live performance counts for more, says Hollingworth, than clinical refinement. For him, polyphony is an endless journey.
“I’m very strong about singers in polyphony finding their own line from beginning to end. This is influenced by things that happen along the way. It’s like light travelling in space – the other singers are the planets which bend the light because of weight and gravity, but there’s still a beginning and an end. There has to be direction.”
Though an avid researcher into the specifics of period performance practice, Hollingworth believes that today’s performers cannot escape the pressures of context and taste. Performance venues are larger, requiring a different vocal technique, and some things we know for certain to be historically accurate, like portamento, or the act of sliding from one note to another, are rejected by today’s performers because they are considered bad taste.
“We try to kid ourselves that we can do everything as they did before, but we know that part of it is still down to taste. And I think we should just embrace that. On stage you have to make sense of the music for an audience now.”
The second half of the concert features Poulenc’s “Sept chansons” for eight solo voices – “Erotic poetry” by Paul Eluard. Sometimes it’s just like a series of blurred black and white images. But it’s so expressive. Monteverdi and Poulenc are the two composers who really draw me out.”
Hollingworth has no difficulty in finding points of reference to Musica’s four core values of quality, diversity, challenge and joy.
“You can’t excuse a lack of quality. If we’re tremendously entertaining but we sing like dogs, I’m sure we won’t be asked back.
“You need diversity in programming. When you’re singing with a vocal a capella group you need variety, and I love to put a South African piece beside a Monteverdi Madrigal beside an erotic setting by Poulenc beside a communal dog turd chanson from 1528.
“I think it’s important to keep challenging the singers – you have to keep them fresh. And I think we’re particularly good at that in I Fagiolini. That’s why I adore Monteverdi, because you never reach 100%. But it’s lovely to aim at it.
“Music-making ought to be about sharing, actually. And that leads to joy.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
I Fagiolini tour Australia 25 July – 8 August. For more information on I Fagiolini, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/IFagiolini