10 Questions: New Zealand String Quartet

04 April 2014 / 10 Questions

Earlier this month we celebrated a special milestone – 20 years of working together as the New Zealand String Quartet. Such longevity is rare for professional ensembles and the rewards are immeasurable. This anniversary prompted us to reflect not only on past achievements, but on the joy our current work brings and what we’re looking forward to in the future.

1. What is the background to you all getting together these 20 years ago?

It was quite a complicated process. Gillian had been playing in second violin position with the New Zealand String Quartet since it was first set up in 1987. During the next few years the three other original group members moved on, opening the way for Doug to join the group as second violinist, in July 1989 and Gill swapping to Viola position. After Wilma Smith left to join the NZSO, Helene was auditioned in October 1993 and arrived in February 1994 to start her new position. Shortly after this Rolf was auditioned, was selected and started work in early May. By this time Gillian was on sick leave with an arm injury, so the group performed a first tour as a string trio (with Doug playing viola) in June and a second big centre tour in September of that year with Peter Barber on viola and Michael Houstoun.

Meanwhile the group was starting to rehearse with Gillian as she recovered and they did their first private performances that October. The first actual public concert together as a quartet was at the Kerikeri Festival in February 1995 playing Haydn String Quartet Opus 20 no 2 and the Dvořák Piano Quintet with Richard Mapp.

2. What can you tell us about Rolf’s audition in 1994?

Gillian remembers Rolf’s arrival in NZ as if it were yesterday. “It was March 1994. We played the same repertoire with all the cello auditioners – carefully chosen movements with cello solos, or very demanding rhythmically or for other reasons. Each of the five cellists had the same amount of rehearsal time and the concerts were in the same place, the same day of the week, a week apart. Rolf’s playing, level of quartet experience and musical input, made him the standout choice”.

Helene remembers that Rolf was the final auditioner and when he sat down to play with the group it was ‘quite a magical moment’. She had played with him before but had no idea how he’d fit in with the others, “but the balance of forces just felt right. It didn’t hurt at all that he had huge amounts of quartet experience, of course!”

3. What were some of your standout memories from the early years?

Doug: Our first big artistic project was to play and record the entire Bartok Cycle. We began performing them in 1995 and one evening in Hamilton we played all of them in a row which felt like an amazing journey into one man’s creative essence. It didn’t even feel long because we were all so enthralled by the music.

Rolf: The audience didn’t want to leave at the end!

Helene: We felt like having T shirts printed “I was there and heard all the Bartoks in one night!”

Gill: I remember we all expected to feel physically exhausted after it but didn’t! Just exhilarated. We want to do it again some time soon.

4. Does the 20 years together feel like a long time?

Helene: When we rehearse something and it just isn’t getting better it seems like we haven’t been together nearly long enough. However at other times things just come together, or in a concert when we can sense each other’s listening and we have an unspoken communication that allows all sorts of things to happen as if by magic – then 20 years seems like a wonderfully long and satisfying time.

Gill: Not at all. It’s just a matter of living one day at a time and, at some point, 20 years have gone past. None of us feel old, we just notice how young the students now open doors for us! My favourite feeling in a concert is like being on a surfboard riding the fantastic waves the quartet provides – it’s like a balancing act, you’ve got to be totally on your toes and reacting to every wavelet – challenging, stimulating, thrilling all at once. You need lots of control but you aren’t controlling the action – the exciting mix of your own input and bouncing off what’s coming from the others.

Helene: I’d describe it as a “flow” state, when we are inside each other’s heads and feeling the music’s energy flow between the voices, coming out from all of us equally.

Doug: 20 years in the NZSQ has strange way of ‘telescoping’ where some things seem incredibly recent, even if it’s been more than a decade. Many of our ongoing collaborations with amazing musicians have this quality, like our recent tour with Jim Campbell. Yet with Jim it also feels like we’ve always been playing with him – a real paradox.

5. What have you learned from this unique opportunity to work this long with the same three other people? What has this taught you about working with people?

Helene: There’s always something I can learn from each of my colleagues. There’s also always a better and more efficient way of rehearsing, and it’s a never ending quest to find the next step along that path!

Gill: working with the same people so intensely has enormous challenges. The good thing is that you can choose your reactions and attitudes to each other to a large extent and correct them when you go off course.

6. What are some of the greatest benefits of being together this long?

Helene: Shared memories, shared experiences, shared knowledge of composers and their styles. Pride in what we’ve accomplished together. Knowing each other’s body language, moods, and tendencies. When we start a new piece we have a big toolkit to choose from in terms of how to start working, and a common language of rehearsal. We know and trust each other so much that we can be direct with each other.

Doug: The artistic bonus of returning to repertoire that we love over and over again and building on our experiences with it and adding new layers of interpretive memories each time.

Rolf: Our interpretations do feel more meaningful as we develop them over time.

Gill: All these years together and shared concertising have given us a confidence to play in any circumstance – if anything, it’s more fun now than it was ever before! It’s also cool sometimes to think back on all the many wonderful trips we have done as a quartet, both round NZ and the world. These have added thousands of images onto my mental hard-drive and been such enriching experiences.

Helene: it gets more fun all the time. And it’s NEVER EVER boring! No time-clock punching in this job! But no slacking off possible, either.

Gill: that’s certainly true. We need to keep up practising our techniques, to both maintain and refine them. All that control of the fine muscles needs constant monitoring. And that’s apart from learning the notes and preparing the music in other ways.

7. What are some of the highlights of the 20 years?

Helene: I love looking back on some of the “big moments” – debuts in London and New York, our Kings Place project, things like that. But I also love thinking about when a first time listener has a shine in his eyes talking to us after a concert, or a child at one of our family concerts is so fascinated by the music you can tell a spark has been lit – we are blessed to be surrounded by great art and privileged to share it with audiences full time.

Gill: For me, some of the greatest moments come at unexpected times. It’s usually to do with energy and feeling free and unrestricted – being filled with the ardent desire to give to the audience in the most special way and feeling totally free to do that. It doesn’t happen at every concert quite the same and doesn’t depend on the size of the hall or place.

Doug: The tremendous and life affirming experience of playing the Beethoven cycles in 2001 and 2012 have been amongst the highlights for me.

8. You seem to have a special rapport with the international guest on your current Chamber Music New Zealand national tour?

Helene: We’re so enjoying playing with our dear friend and colleague – clarinettist Jim Campbell. He’s wonderful to make music with – you can always tell how hard he’s listening. I can sense him waiting for us all to do something special and I can hear all the special things he’s creating with his lines and am inspired by them.

Rolf: We often play quintets at festivals, sometimes just the one concert so, even though it can be very exciting, things don’t have time to develop through that wonderful multiple-performance growth that always happens on a tour. So we are always thrilled to have the opportunity that a tour gives. James is the artist we have probably performed with the most over the years.

Gill: People are really into the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets and we’re getting good crowds and responses. Playing with Jim is always wonderful as he has incredible sensitivity and perception, great phrasing and sense of the big picture.

9. Are there other musicians you have played quintets with whom you feel a similar closeness?

Helene: It’s one of the wonderful benefits of playing string quartets that there is a great collection of quintets that we can draw from. So we have loved including other artists into our family over the years – violists, pianists, cellists, singers – and because we know each other so well we can be very flexible with their music making and enjoy getting on their wavelength as a group. There are lots of musicians out there, both in NZ and around the world, with whom we love to make music. Many of them have been to our Adam Festival and others we’ve met at festivals around the world.

10. What are some of your aspirations for the next 20 years?

Doug: My current dream is to play the entire Shostakovich cycle! I’d love audience members to voice their support for the idea if they’d like to hear it!

Helene: We know just over half of them now and are really keen to learn the rest.

Gill: We’ll carry on learning more Haydns, and Mozarts, fill out some of the gaps in our repertoire, like Webern, Zemlinsky, Tchaikovsky, and encourage lots more New Zealand compositions.

And a final word from James Campbell himself:

To my dear friends:
For the years you have spent rehearsing together, planning together, traveling together, eating together and worrying together, I, and all who care about great music, offer you our deepest thanks. Congratulations and happy anniversary.

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