In this, the year of the COVID-19 lockdown, in which livestreaming has become mainstream, the Australian String Quartet has reinvented its mode of presentation. In July, it launched its new platform, ASQ Live + On Demand, from which it has streamed a series of performances under the title ASQ Live at UKARIA. The ASQ’s program has ranged across musical genres and, for this concert, the Quartet returned to an old favourite, Schubert’s String Quartet No 14 in D Minor (1824), known as Death and the Maiden. The concert commenced with Matthew Hindson’s String Quartet No 3, Ngeringa, which had been commissioned for the official opening five years ago of the UKARIA Concert Hall and which was premiered there by the ASQ.
The Australian String Quartet at UKARIA. Photograph © Sam Jozeps
This concert also marked the final performance with the Quartet by its cellist, Sharon Grigoryan, who has been with ASQ for seven years, and the livestream included pre-recorded videos of many generous tributes to Grigoryan from Quartet members Dale Bartrop, Francesca Hiew and Stephen King, as well as from patrons, supporters and composers.
Hindson’s Ngeringa quartet took its name from the concert hall’s original name. The hall was subsequently renamed UKARIA, which combines the initials of its founder, Ulrike Klein, with the word ‘aria’. Hindson responded to Klein’s vision for the concert hall and to the hall’s location near Mt Barker in the Adelaide Hills, an area of great beauty and an important site for Indigenous communities, but which is changing as a result of suburban expansion. Fortunately, UKARIA itself remains isolated from development and traffic noise, at least for now. Klein also acquired the Guadagnini instruments that the ASQ uses, and her support for UKARIA has enabled it to gain a pivotal position in South Australian music.
The Ngeringa quartet is passionate, with striking contrasts, brilliant colours and visceral textures. The first movement, entitled The landscape as viewed from Mt Barker, opens with dramatic, contrasting gestures that evoke the rugged beauty of the Adelaide Hills. The titles of the following movements, Encroaching ‘civilization’ and development, The Idea, and Construction and Realisation, reflect its concerns, and there is a delightful viola passage in the third movement, which I think of as Klein’s speaking voice as she outlines her initial plans for Ngeringa.
Evidently it was Sharon Grigoryan who chose the Schubert quartet for this concert. Late in the second Andante movement, there is a mournful passage where the cello takes up the movement’s main theme, and this passage might be read as her farewell soliloquy. As well as seeing her departure from the quartet as a transition to a new plane of existence rather than as an ending, she perhaps sees death in this way. One of the finest and most popular string quartets in the repertoire, Schubert’s quartet took its name from an earlier song of his that set a short poem entitled Death and the Maiden by Matthias Claudius. In the poem, death is seen as a comfort or as eternal rest. Schubert’s quartet is deeply involving and reflective of the composer’s own ill-health and portent of death as he wrestles with life’s possibilities, difficulties and certainties.
The ASQ’s performances in this well-conceived concert were outstanding — spirited and coherent, with some fine individual playing, especially by first violinist Dale Bartrop.
Online and video presentation of the concerts has allowed the ASQ to include material such as interviews and member profiles, making for a richer and more informative viewing and listening experience than is typical of a live concert, and the ASQ’s online platform should extend its reach globally. In the world of online presentation, which is infinitely crowded and fiercely competitive, production design and quality are essential aesthetic as well as marketing considerations, and the production for this concert was very good. Of course, to be appreciated fully, online delivery requires the listener-viewer to use high quality audio-visual equipment. There is, though, no substitute for being there.
Sharon Grigoryan has been an outstanding member of the ASQ and will be greatly missed, but the Quartet has recruited Michael Dahlenburg, currently principal cellist of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, to the vacated chair, and the Quartet will continue to develop its vital role in the Australian and international music scene.
ASQ subscribers can watch the concert on demand until 31 December, 2020. Click here for more information or watch the livestream below: