The joy of chamber music was celebrated in full force at the Darlington Quartet’s recent performance at Western Australia’s Government House. The Quartet, comprising Semra Lee-Smith, Zak Rowntree (violins), Sally Boud (viola) and Jon Tooby (cello), performed two vibrant string quartets: the first quartets of two similarly vibrant composers, Tchaikovsky and Ravel. Regularly performing as part of the chamber music program in the regional town of Darlington, the quartet’s members are drawn from the ranks of the Australian String Quartet and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. Seeing these four musicians perform together was a genuine delight, the nature of the concert itself allowing for a connected and communicative experience.
The concert is the first in the Music on the Terrace’s Soirée Series, held in the Green Room of Government House. The performance space itself hearkened back to the origins of the chamber music genre; concurrently elegant and intimate, allowing the audience to see the inner workings of the ensemble up close. Large windows to the south allowed a soft light from the late afternoon sun to percolate in, contributing to the overall chamber-style aesthetic.
Done away with were the concert blacks, further lessening the barrier between performers and audience commonly established by formality. Both quartets were preceded by an introduction from one of the players, establishing context, as well as ideas and themes to listen out for, which were then demonstrated beforehand, providing a sense of direction for the audience to follow during each piece.
The first of the two pieces, the Tchaikovsky, was a masterclass in ensemble communication, full of movement and body language. It was clear from the onset that the Darlington Quartet are one cohesive unit, with each talented member able to express exactly what they want to and translating this into a performance full of depth. The first movement contains an ‘accordion’ motive, which emulates the sound of bellows and the idea of flowing air. Darlington perpetuated this idea throughout the quartet, with the breath being a clear point of communication between players. It is remarkable how much breath can come into a performance by instruments with absolutely no reliance on it for their sound. It’s also quite prevalent in Tchaikovsky’s writing for the second and third movements, where the folk song inspirations heavily affect phrasing; the original melodies most likely having initially been sung. The second movement in particular has hymn-like elements in the opening and closing, and ends with a plagal cadence, adding a further layer to the impact of air and the breath on this piece.
The Ravel had a harmonic language much more focused on tonal colour and impact than the Tchaikovsky, but the two worked well together with their complex emotional depth and changing moods. The Quartet brought out all of the magic and mystery in Ravel’s piece, transitioning between timbral styles and techniques with ease. The second movement in particular was a favourite, with its initial use of pizzicato and varying colours showcasing a whole range of interesting textures. Darlington thrived in this quartet, giving life to beautiful moments which surfaced through turbulent waves of emotion and music woven into the piece. They explored the complex texture of the quartet seamlessly, to the point where Ravel’s own fascinating explorations into the realm of music and sound were made clear.
The concert overall was a success, the length of which made it all the more satisfying, without the sense of restlessness which can overcome an audience detained for too long. I hope to see more chamber music from this group of stellar musicians, whose interpretations and skilled performance of these works made for a pensive and enjoyable Sunday afternoon.