Hot on the heels of her wedding, the Australian String Quartet cellist Sharon Grigoryan talks about their new album.
The last six months have been huge for guitarist Slava Grigoryan and the Australian String Quartet. Their new CD for ABC Classics is on sale today and the quintet is about to embark on a national tour. And all of this hot on the heels of a wedding: the ASQ’s cellist Sharon Draper married Slava Grigoryan at the Ukaria Cultural Centre in Mt Barker, South Australia, in December.
“It was a wonderful, relaxed affair,” Sharon (now Grigoryan) tells me over the phone from Adelaide, where she’s relaxing after a highly successful tour with the quartet to Italy and the UK. “The whole quartet was there with their families as well.”
Newlyweds Sharon and Slava Grigoryan at UKARIA Cultural Centre. Photos © Jacqui Way
The new Grigoryan couples’ links with Ukaria run deep, not least because Ulrike Klein, who built the centre, bought the Guadagnini instruments that the ASQ plays. “The quartet has played there a few times and Slava has played there a few times, and we knew we wanted it there, because it has already become a very special place in our hearts,” Sharon says.
“It was just really great fun. Like all musicians we have played at wedding gigs and we’ve had to deal with a lot of uptight brides in the past,” she laughs. “We knew we just wanted it to be relaxed and fun.”
“We’re lucky to have some wonderful friends who do wonderful things. One friend of ours who’s a wine-maker from the Barossa, he made the wine for our wedding. Our wedding photographer is also the photographer for the ASQ – she does all of our brochure pictures. Another friend of ours who’s a baker made the cake,” Sharon says. “It was just a really special day.”
Sharon and Slava Grigoryan
2017 is an auspicious year for the newly-weds with Migrations, a collaboration between Slava Grigoryan and the ASQ, hitting the shelves today and the five musicians about to launch a national tour. Limelight has already lined the new album up as an Editor’s Choice in their next issue.
The album is the ASQ’s first release with their new line-up, and bringing in the guitarist as a guest artist seemed like a perfect match. “For us as a string quartet, adding a guitarist really adds a completely different sonority to the group,” Sharon explains. “The resonance of the guitar strings adds an extra depth and ring to the sound, but also because of the immediacy of the plucked instrument of the guitar, it adds an incredible layer of texture to the sound of the string quartet. Almost like if you’re playing baroque music in a string orchestra and then you add the harpsichord.”
And while a guitar and string quartet combination sometimes throws up balance issues, this particular guest artist proved a dream to work with. “It’s incredibly easy when it’s a player of Slava’s capabilities,” Sharon says. “He’s very used to playing chamber music, so there aren’t any issues of ensemble or anything like that. We’re all thinking on the same wave-length.”
The ASQ performed the first two pieces on the album – Ralph Towner’s Migration and Wolfgang Muthspiel’s Flexible Sky – at last year’s Adelaide Guitar Festival, of which Slava is Artistic Director. “The three composers are all good friends of the quintet,” Sharon explains. The ASQ has worked with Iain Grandage – whose Black Dogs rounds out the CD – in the past, and the group performed at his Port Fairy Music Festival last year, while Slava plays in a guitar trio with Towner and Muthspiel. “So there’s a real connection of friendship and camaraderie through these three composers and the quintet,” Sharon says.
The programme creates a vivid contrast between the three composers writing for the same instrumentation. “It’s really interesting these three pieces together,” Sharon says. “Ralph Towner was originally a pianist – a very renowned jazz pianist – and then at the late age of 22 he fell in love with the guitar. But he still composes from the piano, so when you here the Towner quintet you can imagine actually playing it on the piano, in the textures and the way the voicings are passed around between the instruments.”
“The guitarist has continuous quavers going throughout almost the entire piece,” she says, “apart from the slow section in the middle. So the guitar is like the motor of the piece. And more in the foreground and the string quartet is actually adding to the guitar voice and texture and dipping in and out of the guitar line.”
The Australian String Quartet at UKARIA
Muthspiel’s Flexible Sky has a very different feel. “Wolfgang is a jazz guitarist as well, but while Towner usually plays acoustic guitar, Wolfgang more often than not plays on an electric guitar. We performed Wolfgang’s guitar quintet at the Guitar Festival last year with Wolfgang on electric guitar.”
Muthspiel’s work is also the most substantial on the programme, forming the centre-piece of the disc. “It’s quite epically written,” Sharon says. “Each movement is a world away from the next movement and the middle movement, Laws of Perspective, is the crux of the whole piece, which actually includes a solo cadenza for every single instrument in the quintet. It’s almost like a jazz symphony – it’s huge.”
“Iain Grandage’s piece is completely different again,” she explains. “Iain’s music is incredibly energetic and as a man he’s a very bubbly, very optimistic, larger-than-life, very positive character, and that’s reflected in his music. However, this guitar quintet Black Dogs was actually written with the idea of exploring mental health issues and exploring what goes on in the mind of a mentally disturbed person. So it’s quite uncharacteristic of Iain’s usual writing and explores darker sonorities and harmonies than one usually expects from his music.”
Grandage also approaches the relationship between guitar and quartet parts differently. “And in this piece, the guitar,” Sharon says. “Unlike the Towner and the Muthspiel, actually, the guitar is less in the foreground. It’s more a holistic guitar quintet, five equal voices, and the guitar is often adding to the texture of the strings, whereas in the Towner the strings are often adding to the texture of the guitar.” For Sharon, it’s this contrast between the three works that makes the programme so interesting. “They’re all so individual and so different from each other,” she says, “we thought that actually gives the listener a wonderful journey.”
On their national tour, the quintet will balance Migration and Black Dogs with Schubert’s String Quartet in G Major. “Given the Grandage is exploring the darker side of the human mind and where it can go, we thought that was actually quite a nice segue into the Schubert,” Sharon explains. “This is the last string quartet that Schubert ever wrote and he was incredibly sick by that time and knew he didn’t have much longer to live. He died only a couple of years later. He was really exploring the concept of his own mortality, and even though it’s incredibly beautiful, like all Schubert’s music, there’s a real sense of darkness and foreboding almost from bar one. We thought that was quite a nice tie between what the human mind in its darkest hour can come up with in the modern day – with Grandage’s work – and back in Schubert’s time.”
The Australian String Quartet’s Migrations, featuring guitarist Slava Grigoryan, is out now on ABC Classics. Grigoryan and the ASQ tour Australia May 23 – June 5.