The Australia Piano Quartet are thriving against the odds. APQ cellist Thomas Rann shares the secret of their success.

“Chamber musician” might not seem like a particularly viable career choice, given the sadly dwindling interest in classical music of the public at large, yet the Australia Piano Quartet are not only managing to make this vocation viable; they’re thriving. Perhaps even more refreshingly, the secret of this success has nothing to do with dumbing down or caving to the seductive commercialism of cross over. Moreover the APQ have shown that musical excellence, a commitment to championing bold programming, and sheer bloody hard work can be the bedrock to build an impressively accomplished and fruitful reputation. “Classical music can be a very narrow, difficult and fickle industry to work in,” says APQ cellist and founder member Thomas Rann. “Working in chamber music is even harder, but we’re all completely committed to it. The reality for a lot of musicians is that they have to juggle orchestral and teaching jobs with chamber music, but we’re focused on making the quartet work.”

The Australia Piano Quartet outside the UTS’s Dr Chau Chak Wing Building

If recent achievements are anything to go by, making it work is exactly what this dynamic young ensemble are doing. Hot on the heels of a European tour, which saw the ensemble deliver their debut performance at London’s Barbican Centre, as well as performances on BBC Radio and in Paris, the quartet, made up of Rebecca Chan (violin), James Wannan (viola), Thomas Rann (cello) with the quartet’s most recent recruit and one of the country’s most lauded young pianists, Daniel de Borah, delivered a performance of Schumann’s Piano Quartet, live on national television at the 2015 Helpmann Awards. With performances at the Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room, the Queensland Music Festival and at the Melbourne Recital Centre under its belt, the APQ is cementing its antipodean moniker with a national reach. “We haven’t done Perth yet, but we’d definitely like to,” Rann admits. “We’re following in the footsteps of groups from the heyday of Australian arts from the 1970s to the 90s – ensembles like the Australian Chamber Orchestra – who took on these national titles. Perhaps it could seem a little bit aspirational, but I feel like we’re definitely earning the title.”

Despite the grandeur of its name, the Australia Piano Quartet began its life in more humble circumstances. Originally meeting as classmates at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne back in 2004, the quartet’s three string players, Chan, Wannan and Rann, first collaborated together on staging chamber music performances in 2010. During one of these early outings, before the group had matured into its current line-up, a chance meeting with a surprising benefactor would provide the ideally fertile environment for the APQ to flourish. “The Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney, Theo van Leeuwen, came to one of our early performances and was very interested in working with us,” Rann recalls. “UTS already had a writer in residence and a poet in residence, so he approached us about becoming the University’s first ensemble in residence.”

“Perhaps it could seem a little bit aspirational, but I feel like we’re definitely earning the title.”

This early appointment – a gamble for both parties – would prove both a pivotal and highly rewarding moment in the APQ’s history. “The residency started quite small, but we’re now in a very fortunate position to hold an extremely enviable residency in this country. There is so much potential to grow this even more.” Part of this development comes from the ensemble’s work off of the concert platform. In addition to giving the ensemble to opportunity and resources to blossom as a respected and in-demand ensemble, the UTS residency has also offered the APQ the chance to be musical ambassadors, participating in cultural outreach work with the University, including the launch earlier this year of the UTS Kids’ Proms. The importance of this work is a crucial aspect of the APQ’s place within the cultural ecology of Australia. “Listening in general is very undervalued in today’s world, but it is something that can be taught through music at a very early age,” Rann shares. “It’s a skill that can be used in every activity in life. From personal relationships to work, it’s really important to have critical listening skills. Chamber music is the most heightened form of that because it’s like a musical conversation between friends, where we’re reacting to very subtle things, so listening is everything.”

Another responsibility the APQ have taken upon itself to champion is the commissioning of new Australian works, partly out of a desire to support composition talent from Down Under, and partly to supplement to relatively scarce supply of repertoire, compared to the virtually inexhaustible volume of string quartets and piano trios in the classical canon. It’s a bold gambit: in an environment where snaring the interests of uninitiated audiences has become increasingly challenging, pandering to the more conservative sensibilities of established yet tradition-minded audiences has seen many classical programmes in Australia become skewed away from contemporary work.

The APQ performing on BBC Radio 3’s In Tune while on tour in London

However Rann believes that the entrenched fear attached to the assumption that Australian audiences simply don’t want to hear that kind of music might be misjudged. “I think it’s really important for classical music audiences to listen to Australian music being played by Australian performers. Yes, it can be a little confronting at times, but it’s also very surprising. Some people you might think wouldn’t enjoy some of the music we perform turn out to love it! Classical audiences are far more likely to try hard to listen, appreciate different things and gain something from a performance.” In addition to trusting the audience, the secret to ensuring a commitment to Australian composers doesn’t drive concertgoers away is the context and credibility of the programme, says Rann. “Our overriding aim is to make classical music more engaging, and if the programme is presented in an interesting way that gives it context, I think it makes it more accessible. And the presentation of a new work is always an exciting event, and for audiences to be part of that adds a great deal to the concert experience.”

The Australia Piano Quartet give their third Utzon Room Recital, featuring music by Mozart, Shostakovich and Ross Edwards, August 8.