News that the Australian String Quartet will be breaking up at the end of 2011 is sad, but unfortunately underlines the complexity of quartet life. First violinist Sophie Rowell and violist Sally Boud will leave, Ms Rowell to pursue a solo career and Ms Boud for family reasons. The ASQ, in their former life as Tankstream, worked extremely hard and underwent, according to some, difficult times as they honed their skills in Europe, including at the Cologne Hochschule fur Musik. Indeed, the loss of their original cellist, Patrick Murphy, may have been prompted by difficulties in reconciling the constraints of life as member of a young quartet in Europe with married life. Certainly Tankstream went through the hoops: Banff, Prussia Cove, London String Quartet Competition, Melbourne International Chamber Music Competion. They had success, in their original form with Murphy as cellist at three international competitions, first Osaka, then Cremona, and gained a second prize at the Paulo Borciano competiton in Italy. Current cellist Rachel Johnston joined the quartet in 2006.
The Tankstream/ASQ had one, not uncommon, characteristic for a string quartet: that of a virtuoso first violinist. Opinions are divided on the advantages of this. To some it brings with it the risk of a lack of balance, and to your correspondent this was, from time to time, the case with the ASQ. He feels they never quite achieved the same harmony after their change of cellist. These are of course subjective judgements. There is no doubt that, notwithstanding the odd quibble, the ASQ is a fine quartet. It is however ironic that the very fact of having such a fine violinist in Sophie Rowell must have been a significant prompt for their demise.
It does not seem long since the previous ASQ went through its share of problems. First finding a new violist and then cellist. They eventually gave up and reformed as the Grainger Quartet with home in Sydney. It did not work out. They never quite reached their best and eventually broke up with first violinist Natsuko Yoshimoto opting for the concertmaster position at the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
So Australia’s only full time string quartet bites the dust? Well, not quite, because their Adelaide management at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide is seeking two new musicians. This begs the question: might it not be better to seek a replacement quartet with some reputation in plac? To replace fifty percent of a quartet is a tough call. For a start it is hard to find compatible musicians of the right competence. Melbourne’s Tin Alley has been through three first violinists since its success at the National Chamber Music Competion in Melbourne in 2005. They have now, hopefully, settled down with a permanent first violinist in Adam Chalabi, Concert Master of Orchestra Victoria. They sounded really good with Kristian Winter as first at the 2009 Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. He left to do more composition. Tin Alley cannot be quite the same quartet as that award winning group in 2005. Maybe it will be even better now and we should not prejudge. It takes a quartet a long time to settle down and find its heart, unlike a piano trio. (Piano trios are where the virtuoso violinists should really finish up, along with a virtuoso cellist and pianist.)
So where does this leave us in 2012? There is always the formidable Goldner String Quartet. They, of course, are not a full time quartet, with first violinist Dene Olding carrying the weight of the co-concertmaster position at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Olding is also something of a virtuoso but there is certainly no problem with the balance of the Goldner. For stability it is probably good to have two married couples in the quartet, and to be able to establish true musical compatibility through years of work together at the Australia Ensemble where they are still embedded. The word is we may see something different from the Goldner in the future. With children growing up they have some more freedom to focus on project opportunities and recording but, apparently, no plans for a subscription series. It should be interesting to see what transpires.
Flinders Quartet, another Melbourne ensemble, formed in the same year, 2000, as the current ASQ. Their four players have been together for the life of the quartet and look truly stable as they go forward into their eleventh year with subscription series in both Melbourne and Sydney. Flinders’ developmental years matched those of Tankstream, having been together, inter alia, at Banff, the London String Quartet Competition and the Melbourne International Competition of 2003. They have developed a strong following and look to have the ability and stability for the long haul. They return to the Sydney Opera House Utzon Room this year for their three concert subscription series.
Behind Flinders in terms of years came two quartets, Tin Alley, referred to above, who will undertake a national tour program for the first time this year. Like Flinders they are musicians of high calibre and without doubt will settle down as a first rate enemble. Sadly another Melbourne creation, the Hamer Quartet has disbanded. They had a bright but brief career, winning the 2009 Asia Pacific Chamber Music Competition against very stiff opposition from New Zealanders, the Tasman Quartet. It seems, however, that Hamer’s players developed different career goals and quartet life was not one of them.
So who else is out there? It would be remiss not to mention Ironwood, a quartet built around Danny Yeadon, one of Australia’s finest baroque cellists. It seems they wish to pitch themselves as a baroque/classical specialist, possible a smart move given the growth in followers of the baroque in the last decade or so. The new Hopkins Quartet, another Melbourne quartet, is anchored by the formidable (musically) Wilma Smith, Concertmaster of the Melbourne Symphony. It will be interesting to see what sort of quartet future they develop given that all members have full time orchestra positions with either Melbourne Symphony or Orchestra Victoria. The rest of the, more mature, field seem to mainly be groups that sometimes get together to play quartets. An example of these is the Chanterelle Quartet which is part of the Sydney Symphony Chamber players initiative. Your correspondent reviewed their last concert here a few days ago.
Otherwise, we have to look to the future, but stellar groups may take a while to develop. It seems that no young Australian quartet has been able to beat back the competition and earn a place in this years 6th Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition. The Orava String Quartet did not make it, notwithstanding very creditable performances at the Asia Pacific Competition last year. They have promise but their best has yet to be produced. They are worth following, however, as they do play very well. They will get some intensive tutoring at the forthcoming Musca Viva Festival in Sydney. The Elandra Quartet, yet another from Melbourne, is still young and time will tell. They studied in Banff early last year which will have been to their benefit. Your correspondent cannot, however, speak of them from personal experience of their playing.
If some quartets have been overlooked, apologies all round. In all probability that is because of poor publicity, something at which string quartets are generally not very good.
Notification of Interest: JohnofOz spent some years on the Australia Ensemble Advisory Committee until the Committee’s disbandment. He is currently on the Flinders Quartet Sounding Board.