Townsville 2012: Day 4 - Strings & Things

Plenty of food for thought as violins, viola, cellos and basses take centre stage

Today’s programme is dominated by strings players: what they have to say followed by what they like to play.  In a typical piece of smart programming by Piers Lane, he and no fewer than eight ‘stringies’ give us a thorough grounding in the teaching and professional habits of this normally shy breed before they run the gamut from A to Z in three separate concerts.  First the chat, and again, I’m impressed by the level at which these platforms are pitched.  A relaxed mood predominates but the topic is allowed to soar when required (though never over our heads) and the audience never feel spoken down to.

Brendan Joyce from the impressive Camerata of St. John’s got the ball rolling by talking about the ethos of his conductor-less group.  Apparently, it was a US job satisfaction survey placing orchestral musicians firmly below garbage collectors that persuaded Queensland music educator, Elizabeth Morgan to create this autonomous collective of string players.  Not only do they refuse the tyranny of a conductor, they don’t even have an Artistic Director.  Joyce is keen to point out that as leader, he doesn’t want the pressure of a traditional concert master, preferring directional input to come from all players.  Crucially, he describes the Camerata as a big string quartet rather than a small symphony orchestra, a fact borne out by their intensely communicative playing style.

Four other section leaders from the Camerata were keen to agree, especially the newer members (refugees from less enlightened regimes one suspects).  Clearly they all relish the freedom and Katherine Philip (Principal Cello) was quick to praise Queensland’s thriving instrumental education programme in contrast to the relative impoverishment of regional New South Wales.  Justin Bullock (Principal Bass) agreed.  A newcomer clearly seeking shelter from the harsh Canberra winter, Bullock is a student there of Max McBride, due to arrive later this week.  He can’t come soon enough, as far as Justin is concerned as  his ‘gloopy’ double bass rosin is running low and the ‘powdery cello stuff’ doesn’t cut the mustard as far as the big boys are concerned.

Leo Phillips, ex Vellinger Quartet and now resident of Bangkok, where he conducts all of the major Thai orchestras, had some educational tales to tell as well.  He and Piers shared memories of residential courses in Cornwall, an artistic hothouse where professionals pay to play music together (and fall in and out of love according to Lane).  Phillips is a pupil of Sandor Vegh, clearly an educator both revered and feared.  Either way, he thinks that some of what Vegh shouted at him sank in.  A solid technique was crucial when he joined the Nash Ensemble for four years and was required to master piles of music the like of which he’d never seen. “Composer’s were thrusting music through my letterbox at 2am”, he lamented.  He recalled begging for one more rehearsal (one more than one, that is) for The Soldier’s Tale at St John’s Smith Square, a gig that was being broadcast on the BBC and, as it was a retirement benefit for the Telegraph music critic, every journalist in town was in the audience.  I think he got it - just.

The Canadian violinist and violist, Barry Shiffman was next.  As well as performer, he is also an educator, working at the Banff Centre, quite a destination for young Australian string players in seems.  A co-founder of the St Lawrence String Quartet, Shiffman was adamant that chamber musicians can seldom live by chamber music alone.  He also lamented the downgrading of education in schools where the focus is now solely on the gifted rather than music for all.  Australian cellist Howard Penny was quick to agree, reminding us that in Canberra, the Vice Chancellor now requires students to choose their own teachers rather than the other way around.  Penny was one of the lucky ones.  He won a scholarship to study in Vienna with Tobias Kühne.  He recalls how once a month, the cello students would gather in a smoke filled room for sessions with the legendary André Navarra and where he learned to be a craftsman first, an artist second.

Phillips, Schiffman and Penny then put their money where their mouths were by giving us a lovely reading of Beethoven’s delightful String Trio in E Flat, Op 3.  This early work in six movements is stylistically indebted to Mozart and Haydn but as always, Beethoven moves the genre forward by giving more autonomy to his instrumentalists.  Our ‘Commonwealth’ Trio of Brit, Canadian and Aussie proved generous, attentive partners with a perfect balance and that crucial sense of musicians listening to each other.  By the end of the fizzing finale, three relative strangers felt like three old friends.

Over lunch, Leo Phillips elaborated on his musical education.  At the age of 21 he travelled to the US for private lessons from Schmuel Ashkenasi.  At the second session, the great man muttered, “If you continue to play like that, I’d rather you didn’t tell anyone that I am your teacher”.  Nevertheless, it was Ashkenasi who taught him to listen better, the crucial thing that all musicians must learn in Phillips view.  He also had an interesting take on string quartets which he considers to be quite different from other chamber ensembles - “it’s much more serious - you have to work twice as hard”.  Phillips was also keen to point out that his violin (by Tobias Wideman of Christchurch) is a mere two years old - clearly not a man to be seduced by the lure of those antiques from the 1700s.

Later in the afternoon I saw what Phillips meant about string quartets as we watched the Goldners perform Beethoven’s String Quartet No 3 in D.   Gone were those playful interchanges between three individuals.  What we had here were four people trying to be one - a considerably tougher act and a more serious minded enterprise altogether.  This, by the way, was a superlative performance, exhibiting a perfect blend, a lightness of touch and a fleetness of foot.  And yes, they did have to play together a lot more than this morning’s trio.  Food for thought...

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Clive Paget
The thoughts and roamings of Music Critic and Limelight Deputy Editor Clive Paget.
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