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
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
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
As Musica Viva celebrates its seventieth year in 2015 so the Goldner String Quartet, named in honour of our founder Richard Goldner, celebrates its twentieth. Few classical ensembles manage to last this long without a single change in personnel, while the Sydney-based Goldner Quartet seems to grow ever stronger. Our International Concert Season focuses on the best musicians in the world, and we are incredibly fortunate to have just such a world-class ensemble in our own backyard.
The Goldners were keen to mark this special anniversary with newly commissioned music, and Paul Stanhope’s third string quartet, “Dirrari”, was generously crowd-funded by the audience of the Huntington Estate Music Festival specifically for the occasion. As we now move well into the 21st century, the Goldners also wanted to include a masterwork of the 20th century, the first string quartet (1954) of György Ligeti.
I was keen for the Goldners to show off their brilliance at interpreting Beethoven on this tour, and there was much discussion about which of his works they would be content playing over and over again on one of our gruelling national concert tours. They decided that there is one work of which they could never grow tired, and so each concert ends with one of the greatest works ever written for string quartet, Beethoven’s 15th.
Carl Vine AO
The Goldner String Quartet tour Australia 21 April – 12 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GoldnerSQ
“We’re trying to come into the 21st century,” says violinist Dene Olding, “but sometimes I don’t know where we are. We’ve just come straight from 1780, rehearsing Haydn.”
Our conversation links Berlin to Sydney via Skype; the connection breaks down at regular intervals, as the quartet moves from one device to the next, seeking a better communication solution.
“We want to be part of the 21st century,” laughs violinist Dimity Hall. “We’re just not very good at it! We’re technologically challenged.”
The self-deprecation masks an utter assurance in today’s repertoire. It is entirely in keeping with the quartet’s character that its members elected to celebrate two decades together by performing a new quartet by Paul Stanhope.
“He doesn’t write bad works,” violist Irina Morozova says. “Everything of his that we’ve heard has been really good.”
“His music is well-crafted, approachable, but sophisticated,” says Olding.
“And always drawing aspects from other different influences or sound worlds,” adds Hall.
What do they expect from the new piece?
“A piece that we can play again,” Olding responds immediately. “And that will be well-received, and a useful addition to our repertoire.”
Also on the quartet’s birthday wish-list for the tour is Beethoven’s String Quartet no 15 in A minor, op 132.
“We love to play it,” says Morozova. “We’ve played the slow movement for a lot of people, unfortunately, who were very dear to us, who have died. It’s so profound and so beautiful.”
“It’s life-affirming,” adds Olding. “It’s all about his recovery from an illness, a song of thanks, and it means a lot to me personally, too. It’s a glimpse of something beyond what we usually understand.”
In the year 2000, the Goldner String Quartet presented a 10-concert musical retrospective of the 20th century over 12 days at the Adelaide Festival. It was for that occasion that they learned Ligeti’s first string quartet, “Métamorphoses nocturnes”.
“That project was one of the highlights of our life,” remembers Morozova.
“It nearly killed us, but it was fantastically rewarding,” agrees Hall.
Twenty years in the same line-up is a remarkable achievement for a string quartet. It is impossible to resist the urge to ask the players about the secret of their long-term relationship.
“Marriage!” they chortle in unison (the quartet is made up of two couples).
“It’s a blessing and a curse,” continues Olding. “You get less than that for murder.”
“We’ve survived because we have,” observes cellist Julian Smiles drily. “It is purely a chance thing when a string quartet is formed whether they’ll work. Ours happens to do so. I don’t think that there is a secret.”
“I think we have common ground in many areas,” hazards Hall.
“We’re all Australian,” Olding agrees. “We all have some sort of similarity in background and education. Even though I went to university in America, Dimity and I actually studied with the same teacher in Amsterdam for a while. And we all knew or studied with or were friends with Richard Goldner. That’s why we named the quartet to honour his memory.”
But it is not only the similarities which define the group.
“I’m particularly proud that within our quartet we are four distinct voices,” says Smiles. “I’ve known many quartets where one figure dominates both in personality and on the stage. But I think we have four very strong people, both as individuals and as players, and I think we maintain that while we work on playing together.”
“We can have very individual flavours if the music calls for that,” notes Hall. “But then we can immediately morph into this one organic 16-string instrument.”
Many things have changed over the quartet’s twenty years, not least the role played in everyday life by digital media. Olding immediately thinks of 1780.
“Presumably there was a concert once a week for the local aristocracy in Haydn’s time. They seemed to have a more leisurely lifestyle, and there was more time to do things. Everyone is rushing around now. Who knows what the audience of the future will look like?
“At a concert, we’re there for a reason. We’re professional musicians. But why does the audience go? What drives them to be there? I’ve had various answers over the years, but I think in a way it’s a kind of searching for a way to stop time. In a good concert, time stops for everybody. They’re absorbed in what’s happening. It’s actually a different world. And if we can make time stop for those people for those minutes or hours, then I think we’ve done a good service.”
Their tour repertoire, Smiles observes, is a faithful reflection of Musica Viva’s core values – quality, diversity, challenge and joy.
“You couldn’t find four better words to describe this programme. The pieces are all well-crafted, which we will also bring to the audience with great attention to quality. There’s fantastic joy in the Beethoven, which is remarkable for a composer who was nearing the end of his life, suffering all kinds of health issues. And challenge – I’m sure the Ligeti will be challenging for the audience, but in a really great way. As for diversity – it’s this programme!”
What hopes does the quartet have for its next two decades?
“A nice view, good food…” says Hall.
“A blue drink underneath the palm tree…” adds Morozova.
“No,” counters Olding. “I think it’s to continue to find balance in life.”
“Darling,” says Morozova, “that’s too sensible.”
“When I look back over the last couple of decades, it’s been a whirl of activity,” Olding answers earnestly.
Smiles snorts. “His gravestone is going to say, ‘Still looking for balance…’ “
The four players dissolve into contrapunctal laughter.
Interview by Shirley Apthorp
The Goldner String Quartet tour Australia 21 April – 12 May. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: musicaviva.com.au/GoldnerSQ