Current Issue #487

Cello goodbye:
Australian String Quartet’s changing of the guard

Jacqui Way

As cellist Sharon Grigoryan departs the Australian String Quartet at the end of 2020, Grigoryan and her replacement Michael Dahlenburg reflect on this very amicable game of musical chairs.

After seven years as the Australian String Quartet’s cellist, Sharon Grigoryan has decided that the time is ripe for a change. At the end of this year, she will step down, and fellow Melbourne-trained cellist Michael Dahlenburg will take her place. It takes a lot to leave a chamber musician’s dream job – which is how she describes her experiences in the ASQ. But family duties call, along with other performing possibilities. In particular, spending more time with her five-year-old son and playing more duo concerts with her guitarist husband, Slava, will be high in her mix for 2021, she says.

Audiences may not know, but being a member of a full-time string quartet is an intense, all-consuming affair. It is not just the playing but all the rehearsing, touring, workshops, educational commitments and other tasks that go with the package.

“When I moved to Adelaide, I was single and ready to dedicate my life to music,” Grigoryan says, recalling how she joined the ASQ in 2014.

“It was one of those lucky things, to be paid – in fact salaried in the case of the ASQ – to do what one loves. Which is absolutely wonderful. But with that you have to meet other responsibilities that come with the job. Suddenly my life changed when I got married. We’re tired and have decided to make a little more time, especially for our son. If one is a freelance musician, like my husband, things are easier. You can stay at home if you want to. It gives me that flexibility.”

Grigoryan says she especially misses teaching and orchestral playing, both of which she wants to take up again after she leaves the quartet. In the latter scenario, she looks forward to resuming with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, in which she played before arriving in Adelaide. Coincidentally, teaming up with the MSO would see her continue to play with Dale Barltrop, the ASQ’s first violinist, because he also happens to be co-concertmaster of that orchestra.

During the last three months, times have been understandably tough for the ASQ, exacerbated by the fact that its four players have been stranded on either side of the SA–Victoria border. Barltrop and second violinist Francesca Hiew, who both live in Melbourne, can no longer flit over to Adelaide as they routinely did.

Jacqui Qay
Sharon Grigoryan

Despite this, Grigoryan says the group has been able to be productive in other ways.

“As a small organisation, we are nimble enough to respond in many different ways. We managed to put out recordings we’ve made from two years ago in our Australian Anthology series, and now we are live streaming concerts from Ukaria. For these, a tiny little gathering of 20-something will be present, but in terms of feeding off the audience, I really miss that.”

She says she will also miss the many great times she’s had with her colleagues, who she counts as her most special friends. “We’ve got on like a house on fire. Of course there’ve been tiffs, like you would expect with siblings, but we happen to really like each other.”

When Dahlenburg joins the fold, it will be a case of slotting back in with players he has known well over many years. He and Grigoryan went through Melbourne University together, starting off as desk partners in the Conservatorium orchestra there, and he shares a long connection with Hiew through their time as fellow students at the Australian National Academy of Music.

Not only that, Dahlenburg filled in for Grigoryan while she was on maternity leave in 2018, notably in the quartet’s Beethoven Widmann Beethoven concert in July of that year, an extraordinary event.

“I had to be killed on stage. I was the one they murdered, I had to shout out as the others hunted me down!” he recalls of what happened in the second work, Jörg Widmann’s string quartet no 3 (‘The Hunt’). In this, the other players launch a highly theatrical ‘assault’ on the cellist, yelling and brandishing their bows as they play.

Earning bemused cheers from the audience, it was a spectacle that only highlighted the group’s camaraderie. “It was very special to do that little stint. It felt good,” Dahlenburg laughs. “Being asked to fill in for the 2018 season was the fulfilment of something I’ve loved. That concert was ultimately about playing the music as well as we could, and I guess it must have gone okay!” Dahlenburg says he owes a lot in his chamber music career to William Hennessy, the ASQ’s founding first violinist and now a renowned teacher in Melbourne.

“Really I can thank two people for inspiring me to play quartets. Bill (Hennessy), for having been so keen to get his students playing quartets and sparking that interest in me, and Haydn, as father of the string quartet. He was such a genius at exploring conversation, ideas and sentiment in the hands of four instruments.”

But he says a pivotal moment in his career was as a kid and seeing the ASQ play in a masterclass at school. “I was 13 or 14 at the time, and these were titans of the stage, which is why being invited into the group all these years later is so surreal.”

Agatha Yim
Michael Dahlenburg

It didn’t take long to persuade him to join. “I think I thought about it for only a second,” he explains.” Franny (Hiew) took me for a little walk around the park, and I think she knew what my answer was going to be. She’s known all along just how much I love playing string quartets.” Dahlenburg will begin rehearsing with the group from November, and in the weeks leading up to that will be involved in planning and program ideas.

One composer features prominently in his wishlist.

“It has always been my dream to do a Beethoven cycle,” he says. “Programming is a difficult thing, especially for works that lack a nickname. That’s why cycles are a good idea, because audiences can come to appreciate just as equally works that are performed less often. Beethoven is a prime candidate because he always surprises and shocks, even in the year 2020. He was always pushing the boat out. For him, beauty is not something in your head but something you feel in your gut.” As for Grigoryan, she has the highest praise for Dahlenburg.

“I remember the reaction of everyone in the student orchestra all those years ago when he played for the first time. We all pricked up our ears and were immediately struck by his maturity and flexibility,” she says. “And he already has a close working relationship with the others in the quartet.

“You can be sure I will be there in the audience cheering them on!”

The Australian String Quartet will return to live performance in October 2020, details here.

Graham Strahle

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