One string quartet, first international tour, six weeks on the road, four cities, nine concerts, more than twenty lessons… We could not have prepared ourselves for the eye-opening and amazing experiences we would share.
On March 28, Mee Na and Nick flew out of Melbourne, and the next day, Harry and Will. We were reunited at 10pm on March 30 on the southern-most edge of Cornwall in a chilly European Spring for the first stage of our tour.
Part 1: International Musicians Seminar, Prussia Cove (IMS)
For eleven secluded days of pure music-making on the property of Porth-en-Alls, we were one of two string quartets attending the International Musicians Seminar studying with the British composer, Thomas Adès. Our classes with Adès were held in ‘the Workshop’, a long room lined with floor to ceiling bay windows overlooking the sea. The growl of the sea was constant, mesmerising, and we missed it when we arrived in London.
In our afternoon sessions with Adès, he led us through the worlds of Britten, Beethoven and Panufnik, creating tantalising images for the music and deepening our awareness of structure, harmony and the compositional techniques that make each composer different. Our days and nights at IMS were packed: nightly open chamber music readings, including joining forces with Volta Quartet (UK) for a boisterous night of Mendelssohn and Glière octets; swims in the wild sea (guessing temperatures were below 10 degrees); and lots of listening to other classes – especially those given by Artistic Director, Steven Isserlis, who even submitted to a photo with Mee Na: ‘…anything for an Aussie accent!’ For our European debut performance at St Pol de Leon Church for the IMS Student Concert we played Beethoven ‘Serioso’ Quartet to a packed church that included all our colleagues and faculty – no pressure! The end of the course arrived too quickly and we said goodbye to our wonderful new friends from all over Europe, New Zealand, America and Canada.
Part 2: London
London proved very different from our Cornish-seaside, communal cottage life. Nostalgia was quickly swept away by the great city’s bustling pace and our hectic schedule. Despite fears about Mee Na’s sense of geography, we mastered the London’s Underground and Overground travelling the limits of the city for eight lessons and six concerts. We were thrilled to attend Wigmore Hall concerts – Elias, Hagen, and Borodin Quartets were all touring London while we were there. We saved our pounds elsewhere, at Sainsbury’s and Tesco…
Not quite three weeks in London provided us with opportunities to deepen and consolidate what we were rapidly learning about the complex art of string quartet playing. The string quartet expression, ‘a marriage between two couples,’ gives an idea of the intimacy and intensity of what four people strive to achieve musically together in rehearsal and on stage. It was rewarding to try out new ideas and take risks with our learning in each concert performance, including an exciting debut at Southbank Centre. We worked constantly towards balancing our individual approaches and developing between the four of us a sense of unified purpose – a difficult but very rewarding aspiration. We had some amazing mentors guiding us through this process: Brodsky Quartet’s Paul Cassidy and Jacky Thomas, Belcea Quartet’s Krzysztof Chorzelski and Doric Quartet’s John Myerscough. They each opened our ears to inner and outer perspectives of our music-making: what we imagine and what we actually execute. In music, the best ears you will find are probably on the head a professional string quartet musician. One must strive, strive and strive again to really listen – to paraphrase Yehudi Menuhin: to find order in chaos, to find unanimity in the divergent, to impose continuity upon the disjointed.
Part 3: Berlin and Hanover
In a whirlwind eleven days we got a taste of the musical life of two very different German cities. London to Berlin was a gear-change, this time with a new language thrown in. It was also Will, Nick and Mee Na’s first time in Berlin, so Harry navigated us through this suspiciously sleepy city (compared with London). Sleepy, however, would be the wrong word for our Berlin schedule: we took lessons with Noga Quartet at the Berlin Philharmonie, with Kuss Quartet’s William Coleman, and rehearsed Mozart and Dean string quintets to play in concert with Brett Dean himself.
Our final tour performance was for a ‘hauskonzert’ in Berlin organised by Noga Quartet. On a culinary note, Turkish döner kebabs saved us on many an occasion and Brett Dean introduced us to the real Budweiser beer from Budvar. It was eye-opening to witness the busy musical landscape of a city less populated than Melbourne: Berlin Federal State funds seven major orchestras, including those of Berlin’s three opera houses and an Academy of Early Music. And where there is creative and cultural activity, people flock.
From Berlin, we travelled West and deeper into spring. We spent three intensive days studying with Oliver Wille, second violinist of Kuss Quartet and Professor of Chamber Music at Hanover Hochschule. Here we found a little oasis solely dedicated to rehearsing and studying, and for a moment we could imagine we were somewhere like Hermann Hesse’s Castalia. With great kindness and authority, Oliver Wille shared with us more pieces in the jigsaw puzzle we were crafting together – like adding different ingredients or quantities to our quartet’s chemistry.
Through the landscape of our eight different mentorships, we developed courage and confidence. Contemplating that the four of us have collectively spent more than 70 years studying our musical instruments, only the tip of an iceberg in terms of musical sagacity, we are reminded of music’s timelessness and wonder, that the past stretches long before us and the future will continue long after us, thanks in no small way to arts funding and philanthropy.
Affinity Collective would like to thank the Australia Council for the Arts and our 70-plus supporters through Creative Partnerships Australia for making our tour possible.