After seven years with the Australian String Quartet, cellist Sharon Grigoryan is moving on to spend more family time with husband and duo partner Slava Grigoryan and their young son. Limelight caught up with her ahead of her final concert with the ensemble to find out the highpoints and the challenges of her ASQ life and what the future holds.

Was leaving the ASQ a difficult decision, and is it one you considered it at other points over the last seven years?

It was a huge decision, and one that I didn’t take lightly. So much so, that I was actually grappling with this decision for years before I had made up my mind! It’s such a privileged position to hold, that it deserves much consideration, and also perseverance, before deciding that you want to hand it all in. To be honest, I had considered leaving earlier on. When I moved to Adelaide for this job, I was in my twenties and recently single. I was ready to dedicate my whole life and soul to string quartet playing. I’d been in the orchestral and chamber orchestral scene for the previous decade and was ready to really buckle down and challenge myself. However, as luck would have it, I met my husband-to-be only a few months into my new job with the ASQ, and suddenly, my priorities changed. Quartet playing was no longer the soul priority in my life! It was one of two. However, I knew how lucky I was to have that job, and also, my love for quartet playing hadn’t diminished. I was willing and determined to stay there for as long as it took for me to really know what I wanted from music and my life. I’m so glad I didn’t leave then.

The ASQ in 2015. Photo © Jacqui Way

Apart from the line-up, how has the quartet changed over your time with it, and do you think that your playing changed at all as other members came and went?

Absolutely! A quartet is like a marriage between four people. We all can look back at our lives and see how a particular person in our lives influenced us. Working with three other people in such an intense environment inevitably changes you, both as a person and as a musician. The quartet’s musical style has changed between line-ups, and also with time. People change as they grow, and therefore, their playing also changes. Also, I feel like I have changed immensely as a person thanks to this job. I have learned so much from my colleagues. Qualities such as resilience, patience, humility, diplomacy, the willingness to let go, forgiveness and generosity are things that I feel like I have ASQ to thank for in my “post ASQ” personality.

What will you have learned from the group – both as a musician and as a person – when you finally depart?

If I had to boil it down to one thing, I would say that I’ve really found out who I am through this job. It’s a privileged job to be a member of the ASQ, but also, it is the hardest job I have ever had, by a few miles! I have figured out what is truly important to me in life. As a musician, I don’t think I’ve learned so much on a daily basis since being a university student! Every single day, whether it be a performance day or a rehearsal day, is one that challenges you as a musician, person, and player. I feel like my personal repertoire of expression has expanded so much, thanks to my colleagues showing me the way over the last seven years.

At the Bromley Room, Ukaria. Photo © Sam Jozeps

If you had to pick three highlights or special moments from the last seven years what would they be?

Three is a much nicer number to pick than one, which I always find impossible! The funny thing is, if I were to answer this same question tomorrow, they would probably be three different answers. Today, my answers are:

Playing Ligeti’s First string quartet for the first time.

Our first national tour with the current line-up. I remember an overarching feeling of optimism and excitement at was the future of ASQ holds. I hope that Dale, Francesca, Steve, and Michael feel the same way next year. I’m sure they will!

Doing a workshop at Ferny Grove High School in Brisbane – our violinist Dale’s old high school. They had the most wonderful music program! I remember us coming in and performing a quick concert to them. The reaction was so enthusiastic and keen afterwards – happily, not uncommon from school students after a performance. However, unlike a lot of school workshops, they then wanted to perform for us. The school choir sang a song with students and teachers performing in a small ensemble to accompany them. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor at the end! Their standard, but, more importantly, their sheer love and joy in music was palpable. I haven’t cried so much listening to a performance, ever. It was one of the most inspiring days of my life.

Is the program for your final concert a special one for you? And what are your personal relationships with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet and the String Quartets of Matthew Hindson?

There’s a poignancy for me about performing Matthew’s Ngeringa in my final concert. Steve and I performed this piece for the opening of the Ngeringa Cultural Centre (now Ukaria Cultural Centre) five years ago. That year, ASQ only had two permanent members, whilst Steve and I were looking to fill the two violin positions. It was an incredibly tough year. It’s so lovely to play this now with Dale and Franny – it feels like the cycle is complete, and also, so nice to know that the quartet is in stable and wonderful hands with their new cellist, Michael Dahlenburg. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden was the first Schubert quartet I’d ever played. It changed me when I first played it, and I feel like it changes me every time I play it. Particularly the second movement which gives it its name – I feel transported into different universes whilst playing. It’s just the most sublime piece of music. I’m so lucky that this piece will be the last piece I ever play with the ASQ.

Recording Australian Anthologies

Is getting the work life balance right an art? And what are the advantages and drawbacks of being in a musical duo with your husband?

I found getting the work/life balance right extremely difficult whilst I was with the ASQ. It’s no secret that that is why I’m leaving! It doesn’t help that my husband is also a heavily touring musician, and of course, with a young child in the mix it tipped things over the edge for both Slava and myself a little too much. As a freelancer, I’ll be able to say yes, but importantly, also no, to work that comes my way. Slava is already a freelance musician, so he has always had that control. Therefore, things will be in my hands to be able to get that ever elusive work/life balance more on track. So far, happily there are no disadvantages of being in a musical duo with Slava! I can imagine that there may be if it was both of our fulltime jobs, but we both have a very healthy balance of other work, so we certainly never get close to being tired of each other’s musical company. We both can’t believe how lucky we are that we can be in a duo together, and, once our son is a little bit older, we’ll all be able to tour together as a family. We tried going on tour twice with our (then) baby, but it proved to be a disaster when he developed an ear infection. Two parents having to drive for hours and then perform a concert together after a total of two hours sleep was NOT something we want to recreate!

What kinds of things do you and Slava have planned for the immediate and longer-term future?

Everything is still quite up in the air what with COVID and all. However, Slava and I have plans to perform a lot more as of next year, and there are some tentative bookings already in Victoria and New South Wales, as well as South Australia  of course. We plan to continue recording as well. Slava has his wonderful guitar duo with his brother Lenny, which has been put on hold for the last few months. The boys are also starting to take in bookings for touring within Australia next year. We’re really taking things one day at a time – as is everyone, at the moment.

Sharon and her son Sebastian Grigoryan. Photo © Sam-Jozeps

Apart from the time to make music with Slava, what are you most looking forward to in your first few post-ASQ weeks?

Gosh, I think the main thing I’m looking forward to is not feeling the constant, 24-hour pressure of needing to learn a new cello part for rehearsals around the corner, coupled with not needing to check my computer for emails multiple times a day! I’ll put the computer away, delete the email App and office App on my phone, and not touch the cello for a week or two. Instead, I’ll enjoy a slower daily pace – spend time in the garden, call and see friends, finish my book, play with my son, and enjoy not having that nagging feeling at the back of my mind that time is limited, or that I really should be getting around to those emails or cello practice. Bliss!

Do you see yourself as part of a quartet – or even in an orchestra – at some time in the future?

I don’t see myself as a permanent member of any ensemble in the future – apart from the duo with Slava. After spending some years as a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and then of course the ASQ, I’m at a stage where I feel like I want the freedom to forge my own path; be a part of many different projects of different genres, as well as teaching, curating, directing, etc. However, I come from a background of orchestral and string quartet playing, and that is, and always will be, so close to my heart. I really hope to play with many different orchestras and chamber groups as a guest in the future.

The ASQ farewells Sharon Grigoryan in a live-streamed concert on Friday 13 November, starting at 12:50pm (ACDT). ASQ subscribers can watch the concert on demand until 31 December, 2020. Click here for more information or watch the stream below:

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