By: Robin Usher
March 17, 2017
This year will be one of experimentation for one of Australia’s oldest and most influential chamber groups, the Flinders Quartet. The group will explore late works by Schubert built around its subscription concerts in March and September, as well as a performance of his quintet.
‘’We want to shake things up a little bit, and get back to the idea where chamber music began, which was as a social activity,’’ says the group’s cellist and chief organiser, Zoe Knighton. ‘’We want to encourage as many people as possible to take an interest in music. But our live performances will always be the core of our activities.’’
The new direction began last December with a composers’ workshop that attracted 29 entries and resulted in a selection of eight works performed over a week, with composers Stuart Greenbaum and Miriama Young mentoring the writers.
The idea grew out of the number of scores the group receives every year, but which it usually had no time to explore. ‘’I hope we have uncovered new talent and that we can make this an annual activity,’’ Knighton says. ‘’It fits into our aim to reach out to the broader musical community.’’
This includes an extension of the three lunch-time concerts in March, June and September in the Collins Street Baptist Church which will now extend to include performances from ensembles from the Victorian College of the Arts secondary school, Monash University and Victorian Amateur Chamber Music Society.
A schools’ residency program is next on the schedule, beginning next year, as well as a China tour. All this activity follows the consolidation of the group’s new identity after the departure in 2012 of violinists Erica Kennedy and Matthew Tomkins to concentrate on their orchestral careers and new family commitments.
They were replaced by Shane Chen in 2014 and Nicholas Waters the following year, joining violist Helen Ireland and Knighton who started the quartet in 2000. The group has regularly commissioned and premiered new works by Australian composers and hopes to issue a recording of these works every second year to ensure they remain on the permanent record.
This year’s recital program includes three contemporary works, beginning with the premiere of Calvin Bowman’s new piece commissioned by the quartet and Julian Burnside at the Melbourne Recital Centre on March 23. The others are Richard Mills’ fourth quartet and Peter Sculthorpe’s 18th quartet, both from 2010.
This first concert’s title, Schubert in the South, is inspired by the inclusion of three songs by South American composer Carlos Guastavino arranged by Iain Grandage. The final piece is Schubert’s last quartet in G major, No 15 D887.
Knighton says the Schubert work has an impact similar to watching an epic movie. ‘’It is not necessarily as showy as some of his other works such as Death and the Maiden (which the group performs in September) but it will never go out of fashion.’’
She says it illustrates Schubert’s unique ability to combine dark and sunshine. It was written in 1826, two years before he died aged 31.’’Schubert was in pain before he died but the miracle is that works like this contain so much joy. It is so essential to the quartet tradition that I often use is it in lectures.’’
The Flinders’ youngest member, Waters, 26, says it has an almost symphonic structure that makes perfect sense, despite some complaints about its length. ‘’Schubert has an innate structural ability, which is just as apparent in his much shorter song writing.’’
Waters brings a surprising variety of experience to the quartet. After finishing his studies at the Australian National Academy of Music at the end of last year, he is now also a member of the Affinity Collective and was a member of the orchestra performing Opera Australia’s 2016 Ring Cycle.
He also toured China with the Sydney Symphony in 2014 but finds his membership of the Flinders Quartet demands a lot more responsibility than playing with an orchestra where all administration is taken care of. ‘’The quartet might have a long history but there are four equal voices in the rehearsal room,’’ he says.
Knighton appreciates the insights Waters brings to the quartet. She cites veteran chamber violinist Bill Hennessy who says every musician needs to listen to fresh ears in the rehearsal room. She acknowledges the group has faced many demands as the new members settled in but says this has also brought new opportunities.
‘’Every hurdle in the process is also an opportunity to move ahead,’’ she says. She points to the group’s June performance of Schubert’s string quintet in a gala concert at Hawthorn Town Hall with guest cellist Timo-Veikko Valve from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which has been two years in the planning.
Flinders Quartet subscription season opens with Schubert in the South at the Melbourne Recital on March 23 and at Montsalvat Barn Gallery on March 26. The group also performs Quartet on Collins at the Collins Street Baptist Church at 1pm on March 21.
A quartet for the twenty-first century, their dynamic and stirring performances of a full spectrum of repertoire have audiences and critics articulating their esteem, and the quartet is now a highly respected force in Australian chamber music.