We’re delighted to welcome members of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) to ANAM for two concerts this week. They are working alongside our ANAM Musicians exploring the mesmerising sound world of Benjamin Britten. Ahead of their jam-packed rehearsal schedule starting, we caught up with them to ask them a few questions.
You have such a busy schedule of performances, workshops, commissions and education projects. What do you find most rewarding?
FRANCESCA HIEW (FH): The great thing about being a member of the ASQ is that our responsibilities are varied. There is, of course, the performance, touring and teaching side, but as Co-Artistic Directors, we also have a lot to do with the administrative side of the company. It means we are fully involved and invested in the direction the Quartet takes, musically and as an organisation.
DALE BARLTROP (DB): The most rewarding thing about life in the ASQ is the sheer variety of activities that we undertake. It is a joy to be able to combine rehearsing, performing, teaching, working with composers, touring, recording, filming… you name it! There’s always something new on the horizon and it is a very stimulating environment to be working in.
Over two days at ANAM you’ll perform seven works by Benjamin Britten. Can you tell us how the concert programs were formed?
STEPHEN KING (SK): The ASQ was invited by Nick Deutsch to curate a quartet project at ANAM. We soon struck on the concept of a Benjamin Britten chamber music exploration with his incredible quartets, oboe quartet and works for string orchestra. We feel that the learning of ANAM musicians playing alongside professionals is an invaluable aspect in passing on musical understanding.
Can you describe your favourite piece in this project?
SK: Naturally they all show a different creative side of Britten’s chamber music output and we couldn’t just choose one! However, I love playing the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and am looking forward to that homage to Britten’s former teacher.
FH: My favourite work is Britten’s Second String Quartet which I was early to call shotgun on! I spent a lot of time learning this quartet during my ANAM Fellowship and later preparing it with my previous quartet, the Auric Quartet, for the Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition. It’s one of those pieces you can completely lose yourself in. The last movement is such a delicate and beautiful movement which is super difficult to pull off. Britten’s quartet writing is so equal between the four voices that everything has to be so unified. It’s incredibly difficult.
Stephen, Francesca and Dale will each perform in one of Britten’s String Quartets alongside three different ANAM musicians. We were lucky enough to schedule pre-rehearsals with those ASQ members before September. The first of these occurred in June. What are the advantages of rehearsing for a concert well in advance?
DB: The quartets of Benjamin Britten present some significant challenges for even the finest professional string quartets. They are all masterpieces, but they require deep understanding and exploration. This takes time and thus we felt that it was vital to work with our respective quartets well in advance of our residency at ANAM. This will allow us the time to grow more familiar with the music, to internalise and question our musical decisions and to let them marinate over time, which will hopefully result in an even more satisfying performance at the conclusion of our residency.
FH: It gives us time to digest the piece as a group. Some decisions on how things are going to go just need time to be fully realised. It’s good to live with a quartet for a while because some things just can’t be rushed!
Britten’s First String Quartet dates from 1928 when the composer was just 15 years of age, and his last almost 50 years later from 1975, his final completed work. Can you briefly describe the main differences between these works?
FH: As he only wrote three quartets (plus the Divertimenti), it’s easy to hear the development in his writing. The First Quartet is relatively short, fresh and quite humorous. Then he delves deeper and discovers a sound that is so unmistakably Britten. The final movements of his Second and Third String Quartets have an almost heart-wrenching repetitiveness to them, a device he also uses in the last movement of his Violin Concerto.
Most of the chamber works performed in this project are from Britten’s younger years. Do you think this will help the ANAM musicians connect to the works more closely?
FH: Besides probably making us all feel completely inadequate, yes, I think Benjamin Britten was probably like the rest of us aged 20 – searching for who he was. There are diaries Britten kept during these years that speak of his struggle with feelings of being inferior to others as an artist and thinker, his realisation of his homosexuality and details of several of his relationships. Juicy stuff, but a reminder that this great mind is still human.
Does the music of Britten hold a special place in the ASQ’s repertoire?
DH: We are all very fond of Britten’s music. The ASQ performed and toured his First String Quartet last year and look forward to tackling his Second and Third Quartets in due course. Franny and I are both huge fans of his Violin Concerto, another early work that he completed in 1939, two years before his First Quartet. Then there are his operas, which are extraordinary creations and offer a world of insight into this musical giant of the 20th century.
Two ASQ members are ANAM alumni that have gone on to have successful international careers. Do you have any words of advice for our current musicians for what to expect after ANAM?
FH: Probably that you can’t expect anything. At ANAM you are given amazing opportunities and once you leave, you have to find your own. It’s kind of common sense – If you want a life in chamber music, be proactive and form a group or play with a bunch of different people to find who you work best with. If you want an orchestral career, practise your excerpts like crazy and perform them for anyone who will listen. And if you just want to do everything like I did, keep all of your doors open!
Interview by Miranda Cass, ANAM Marketing Coordinator
BENJAMIN BRITTEN & THE STRING QUARTET 1
Fri 7 Sep 11am
BRITTEN Phantasy Quartet for oboe & string trio
BRITTEN 3 Divertimenti for string quartet
BRITTEN Movement for wind sextet
BRITTEN String Quartet no. 1 in D major op. 25
Nick Deutsch oboe
Australian String Quartet Musicians
All Tickets $35
Bookings anam.com.au or 03 9645 7911
BENJAMIN BRITTEN & THE STRING QUARTET 2
Sat 8 Sep 7.30pm
BRITTEN String Quartet no. 2in C major op. 36
BRITTEN String Quartet no. 3in G major op. 94
BRITTEN Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge op. 10
Australian String Quartet
Dale Barltrop violin
Francesca Hiew violin
Stephen King viola
Patrick Murphy cello
Venue South Melbourne Town Hall
Tickets Full $60 Sen $47 Con $35
Bookings anam.com.au or 03 9645 7911
The Australian String Quartet’s ANAM residency is generously supported by David and Gai Taylor
The position of ANAM Artistic Director (Nick Deutsch) is generously supported by Janet Holmes à Court AC