I can’t think of a better way to spend a wet June evening in Brisbane than with the Doric String Quartet, brought to us by Musica Viva as part of the 2019 season.
This world-acclaimed foursome – Alex Redington and Ying Xue (violins). Helene Clement (viola) and John Myerscough (cello) – exudes youth both in appearance and in the freshness with which they tackled each of the pieces selected for the Australian tour. I can only assume that these four do not comprise the original quartet, formed in 1998, because they all look far too young to have been playing together for 21 years! The Doric has won many international awards and performs in all of Europe’s great concert halls so we are lucky to be able to enjoy them in Australia. And they were so full of verve and obvious joy in their music – strings can begin to sound a little weary at the end of a gruelling tour but not this bunch!
In fact I haven’t had so much fun since Musica Viva brought the Goldner Quartet and my favourite violinist Dimity Hall to Brisbane some years back.
The enthusiastic Brisbane audience in the Queensland Conservatorium on June 26 was entertained (and enlightened) by three very different work; Haydn’s B-flat major op. 33 no. 4, former Brisbane hometown boy Brett Dean’s five-movement Hidden Agendas and the Big B of string quartets, Beethoven’s no. 14 in C-sharp minor, op. 131. A treat indeed for chamber music fans!
All three works offer very different challenges which this quartet raised its bows to meet with an unfussed technique and elegance of tone. Haydn’s not-so-well-known number 4 of the six opus 33 string quartets can be a tough way to begin a concert because it frisks into life without preamble and tends to take the listener by surprise; it’s a light hearted piece altogether, albeit with a heartbreakingly lovely largo, then ends with a touch of typically Haydenesque quirky wit. The Doric captured it all. And it’s wonderful to see a viola that was once played by Benjamin Britten in the slender hands of Helene Clement. I have a personal fondness for this work and have not often had the chance to hear it performed live.
Brett Dean, who now lives and works mostly in Europe, composed his third piece for string quartets to celebrate his relationship with the Doric and the 2019 Musica Viva touring season has been its premiere. It is inspired by today’s socio-political events and we are told in the program notes that while the quartet was very excited by this five-movement work, members were at first a bit “scared” by it. No surprises there – it’s full of sound and fury and shocking contrasts and in one movement the musicians even have to wipe the rosin from their bows to create a “whispery” sound that comes close to silence.
Hidden Agendas challenged the audience almost as much as it did the players – but it’s a mark of Brisbane’s increasing sophistication that this composition was greeted by warm applause. In truth this is not a string quartet which I would buy and listen to at home. In younger years I determinedly embraced all things new in the arts – from the novels of James Joyce to cubism to Philip Glass’ minimalist melodic pulses. Today I need music to charm, soothe, stimulate, excite, exalt – with melody and harmony. I ask myself why it is that pretty well all serious music since early in the last century has to make a socio-political statement. And, when it does, why it can’t do so as beautifully as Beethoven did it! Of course I understand that music must move on and change, or we’d be stuck with Monteverdi forever! And I would not deny the right of any composer to take us to new places – just as I would not deny myself the privilege of not having to go there if they don’t appeal! So many of today’s composers use their talents to vent their anger and show us how ugly the world is – the antithesis of what music means to me, and to many others. Which is why La Traviata packs houses today and the Australian bicentennial opera Voss does not, despite its undoubted musical virtues. And why Mozart sonatas are as popular today as they ever were and will remain so for the next couple of hundred years – and longer. Assuming we haven’t destroyed the planet by then! (Small wonder, now I come to think of it, that today’s composers seem so angry. Those of yesteryear lived through far tougher times but they were free to seek inspiration from a natural world that seemed eternal; not faced with its exponential destruction as we are today!).
Anyway, back to Hidden Agendas and an admission that when I read those words in the program I inwardly groaned! Oh, one of THOSE titles, I thought! However – and this is admission number two – on stage, live, Brett Dean’s five-movement string quartet was certainly an experience I wouldn’t have missed. At times, an exciting one, though if the charming cellist John Myerscough hadn’t told us what it was all about I doubt many of us would have known just from the music! Visually, it held interest because of the physical demands it made of the performers…the two women have long hair, one dark, one very blond and I found myself mesmerised by all those flying tresses! And the four bows, likewise flying and flowing from the highest shriek to the merest whisper. I thought of the horses’ tails from which hanks of hair were carefully selected to become the vital touchpoint between stick and string. Thought of those horses galloping in the wind, tails streaming. This is not what I was supposed to be thinking about while Brett Dean’s earnest and disturbing work was in progress but perhaps he wouldn’t mind because though his music appeared to stretch all that compacted horsehair to its limit it did, I believe, show a wonderful confidence that the Doric four would be able to take what he had heard in his head, and written into his score, and bring all its edgy extremes to dynamic life. As indeed they did! And the audience loved it!
Finally for the night came the Beethoven which has posed a very different sort of challenge to string players since 1826, because of its revolutionary seven movements without a break between. It’s a mighty work with much delightful musical conversation between individual instruments. And so “modern” in parts that you can scarcely believe it was written nearly 200 years ago. It takes, I believe, four very mature and assured musicians, fully confident in one another’s skills, to perform this well. Somebody compared it to a tapestry but it makes ME think of the beautiful hand-loomed carpets crated by a friend of mine, rich with texture and colours that ought to clash and yet don’t because they are so skilfully woven together. There is one little bit that I especially like, where the cello and viola exchange a bit of dialogue that is like the warm exchange between two friends who are surprised and pleased to see each other after a long time apart.
Altogether a wonderful evening of chamber music with four splendid performers able to give us something new in their interpretation of familiar works while also helping us come to grips with something new.