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
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
Australia has played a special part in the life of the Eggner Trio. Ever since its 2003 victory at the Melbourne International Chamber Music competition, the trio has made regular journeys Down Under.
“This was a fantastic miracle for us, that it worked out in Melbourne, and that there is a continuation,” says Christoph Eggner, the trio’s pianist. “This will be our fourth tour for Musica Viva; and each time it feels like coming home.”
On almost every trip, Australian repertoire has played a central role in the group’s repertoire. For 2015, the brothers have chosen Dulcie Holland’s 1944 trio.
“We played Ian Munro’s trio last time, and he said that we should check out Dulcie Holland. We listened to many different composers, and finally we were so fond of Dulcie Holland, because it’s a really good composition. It’s one big impressionistic crescendo.
“The musical language comes from the late Romantic period. It’s very meditative, but at the same time, the development through the movements is constant; and the end is one fantastic climax.”
The idea of one woman composer lead to thoughts of another; Clara Schumann’s 1877 piano trio seemed an obvious companion piece.
“Clara Schumann was 26 years old when she composed that piano trio,” says Eggner. “The situation between Robert and Clara was, from today’s point of view, really pretty hard. Clara was pregnant almost all the time; it must have been tough for her. On the other hand she was an extremely famous pianist. Her father was absolutely against Robert, so it was a long fight, and she was caught between them – emotionally it must have been a horrible disaster. They were often moving apartments. Then Robert became really sick, so it was chaos. And then you have this lovely trio, full of humour – it just puts everything into perspective. Of course the first movement is pretty dramatic, but then you have music that is like balsam for the soul. The slow movement is the highlight of the whole trio.”
Eggner does not subscribe to the theory that women write a different kind of music from that written by men.
“I never have the feeling that there is anything typically male about music written by men. I think Clara was writing at a turning-point in musical history – it was the beginning of some sort of emancipation, a social self-awareness for women and their role.”
For their tour programmes, the trio has paired Clara Schumann’s calm music with the tortured score of Robert Schumann’s 1851 third piano trio, a work composed when the author was depressive and syphilitic.
“It’s an unruly piece, not easy,” says Eggner. “I don’t think he suffered from bipolar disorder. I think he was just a normal, busy man, and later, when his illness emerged more and more, he started to change.
“The madness is not easy to follow. It’s a sort of organised chaos. Sometimes he demands impossible things – like one piano piece where he writes, ‘play as fast as you can,’ and then a few bars later he writes, ‘faster.’ He is constantly working on the edge of what is possible.
“There are of course lovely moments in this trio, but there is always this swing from one extreme to the other, and the grey zones in between. And the later you go with Schumann, the more grey you find.
“We really want to show the audience that there are pieces that might not be easy to listen to, but are absolutely worth hearing.”
“Schumann’s music invites you to go right to the edge. And when you are in front of an audience, you can push even further. You want to make music with 150%, which means that there is a high danger that something can go wrong. We want to communicate the composer’s message, and we enjoy taking risks.”
Risk entails an inevitability of failure, at least occasionally.
“It’s more important to convey the message than it is to play perfectly,” says Eggner. “I think the idea of playing perfectly is a 20th-century notion. I think people used to be more focussed on the message.
“Of course taking risks does not mean that you will always make mistakes. Even if we are jet-lagged or unwell, our minimum standard should always be as high as possible, and our failures are usually so small that most of the audience will not hear them.
“In the end, I don’t care about mistakes. They happen so quickly that the best thing you can do is to let them go. The music goes on, and you need to concentrate on what is coming next.”
After the concert, Eggner notes, the situation is different; the trio will go back over the evening’s events in minute detail, analyse the slips, and work hard on the passages to reduce the chance of a repeated mishap.
Quality, one of Musica Viva’s four core values, is central to the trio’s work.
“We understand quality to mean high-level music-making. Our quality lies in the cleanliness and precision of our playing, and of how we transport the message of the music to the audience. We want people to be able to recognise what the composer meant because of the way we play it.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
The Eggner Trio tour Australia 7 November – 21 November. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetEggner
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