How did the idea for this project develop?

The Australian String Quartet approached me to bring a theatrical element to this program of Beethoven Widmann Beethoven. The Quartet is interested in exploring new ideas in how live music experiences can be presented.

I commenced with research into Beethoven, his life and his compositions, and came across his Heiligenstadt Testament. This is an incredibly historical document: a profoundly personal letter that Beethoven wrote to his brothers, Karl and Johann, which expresses the intense turmoil the composer faced as his deafness became increasingly debilitating.

We all agreed the Heiligenstadt Testament was an interesting document to work from as it gives such a rich, personal insight to the composer.

Australian String Quartet, BeethovenThe Australian String Quartet in rehearsal with director Andy Packer. Photo: supplied

What ideas are you hoping to highlight or explore in this project?

The goal always is to put the music and the composers at the centre of the performance, and to give the audience a shared entry point into the music. This is a live performance – the players sharing time and space with their audience. We want to unite the audience in this shared experience, and bring them on a journey through the music.

How easily does the text of the Heiligenstadt Testament translate to the stage?

We have edited the letter slightly – just to reduce the stage time dedicated to this element of the performance. By having an excerpt read at the outset of the concert, we hope to provide the audience with a glimpse into the emotional subtext behind the music on this program.

The text will feature both in live and recorded formats, and in the composer’s native language, as well as in English. The outcome of this, we hope, will offer a richer narrative to the life of the music itself, while at the same time, run parallel to the narrative of what one might consider a traditional concert recital. I look forward to the audience’s response.

How will the music, sound and visual experience interact?

The lighting is another form of editing – we are using it to focus the audience’s attention and to create a mood in the room.

How does inserting the Widmann Quartet between Beethoven’s first and final Quartets affect the dynamic in terms of the theatre of this performance?

The Widmann is a wildly confronting piece that requires the performers to create some very unorthodox sound effects with their instruments and voices. On the surface, the music is a wild scherzo, depicting a hunt that starts out quite gleefully, but quickly unravels and turns sinister. Widmann points out that this is an analogy to social behavioural patterns and indeed the psychological drama of this music is palpable. Notably, Beethoven was the first composer to transform the traditionally light and humorous nature of the scherzo into something decidedly more serious and weighty. One can hear evidence of this in the scherzo movements of his first and last quartets. By placing the Widmann between these pillars of Beethoven’s quartet output, both sublime masterpieces in their own right, we hope to highlight the immense inner turmoil that Beethoven faced throughout his career.  While his deafness gradually hunted him down and silenced his world, his music continued to reach new heights of poetic mastery.

What are the challenges of directing a stage performance for string quartet, as opposed to a more ‘conventional’ piece of theatre or opera?

The most important thing in directing any piece of music performance is to not get in the way of the music. I hope what we have crafted illuminates the listening experience in a new way, but the music is still the star.

What do you hope audiences will find in this performance that they might not get from a conventional string quartet performance?

I hope that by adding the context of the Heiligenstadt Testament we bring some of the emotion and intent of the composer into the room, and give the audience a shared entry point into the communal aspect of a live performance.

The act of playing music (especially pieces such as these, on instruments such as these) is also a very physical happening. The musicians move their bodies in such ways as to coax very specific sounds from their instruments, as directed by the composers. I hope that the lighting will accentuate these movements, helping to convey the nature of the music for the audience.


The Australian String Quartet’s Beethoven Widmann Beethoven tour begins tonight in Brisbane before travelling to Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth until July 9

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