Australian String Quartet: sharing the same musical DNA

Those who saw Scott Hicks’ new film Highly Strung or have more than a passing acquaintance with the Australian String Quartet will know how badly rocked this group has been by internal strife.

The statistics alone tell the story. Since it began 30 years ago, the ASQ has signed on 20 players. That’s more than the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s core membership (17), and indeed is enough to form five separate quartets.

The longest surviving member, violist Stephen King, has been on board for two years while the briefest stay was that of violinist Ioana Tache, who left after just one year when she and partner Kristian Winther fell out with the rest of the group – Highly Strung laid it bare all too painfully.

In fact, the average tenure of players over the group’s history is 18 months, which might be okay for a football team but hardly a classical ensemble. Compare for instance the Goldner String Quartet’s unchanged membership over that group’s two decades of playing together. It could just be a persistent run of bad luck that is to blame, or perhaps more plausibly the ASQ’s unusual company structure in which a board of directors has on occasion been far too controlling – it once sacked all the players, in 2006.

But already there are signs that the national flagship group’s fortunes may be about to change. There seems to be a determination, a new spirit, to make it succeed. The two new Brisbane-born violinists, Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew, are both radiantly keen about getting back to playing quartets and teaming up with fellow musicians whom they have known and played with for well over a decade.

The blonde-headed Barltrop, previously concertmaster with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (from 2009) and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (from 2014), has a long history in quartet-playing stretching back to when he worked with the Guarneri Quartet as a student at the University of Maryland. Later at the Cleveland Institute of Music, a student quartet he joined was judged grand prizewinner at the Fischoff National Chamber Music competition.

Barltrop first knew King in the mid-90s when they played in Brisbane’s Camerata of St John’s, and as fate would have it the two met again in Maryland, where King was studying for his doctorate. He also knows Sharon Draper, the ASQ’s cellist, from AYO days when they both played at the 2003 Perth International Arts Festival, and has been colleagues with Hiew in the Melbourne Symphony over the last couple of years. “So, I have history, both old and recent, with all three of my new colleagues in the ASQ,” Barltrop says.

A special highlight for Barltrop was serving for six years as principal second violin of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the US. “Playing chamber music with the likes of Joseph Silverstein, Joshua Bell, Dawn Upshaw, Pierre Laurent-Airmard and touring to some of the world’s greatest concert halls like the Musikverein, Berlin’s Philharmonie and Carnegie Hall, I was so fortunate to cut my teeth in such a way”.

Hiew also seems to share matching musical DNA. Significantly she learned from William Hennessy, the ASQ’s founding leader, while at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne. After that she joined the MSO in 2014 and became a core member of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra. “I got to know Sharon previously through the Melbourne gig scene and from working in the MSO,” she says. “I met Dale when he started as concertmaster of the MSO a few years ago. We played a couple of quartets for MSO’s BEERhoven concert so it feels quite bizarre now being in the ASQ together having first played quartets together with beers at our feet!”

A watershed moment came when Auric quartet were selected for the ASQ’s Quartet Project in 2013. This mentorship experience led Hiew to joining their teacher peers on stage in Victoria’s Dunkeld Festival. “So that’s how I met and played alongside Steve,” Hiew says.

Armed with four wonderful matching Guadagnini instruments, it now rests on the new combination forming a vision of the ASQ in its new era. For now, both new players enthuse about the open canvas of possibilities that lie ahead. “I am, like most string quartet lovers, deeply drawn to the quartets of Beethoven,” Barltrop says. “They are, undoubtedly, a towering achievement in string quartet writing and I will always be in awe of these masterpieces.” “I’m very keen to work my way through all six of Bartok’s quartets, which are the 20th century’s answer to Beethoven’s cycle. Kurtag, Ligeti, Schoenberg and Thomas Ades are a few other names I’m keen to explore. Of course, I’m also really looking forward to championing many of Australia’s finest quartet composers in the coming years with the ASQ – this is certainly at the core of what we do, in addition to presenting the masters of yesterday.”

Hiew’s span of interest is equally wide. “I love the early masters – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert,” she says. “There is an endless amount to learn from these quartets. Some of the later quartets that I’ve spent days upon days listening to and thinking about include the quartets of Bartok, Britten, Webern, Schoenberg and, of course, Zemlinsky. “I’ve also always been very eager to discover new pieces as well as works that have fallen into obscurity or are just barely played. Recently, I’ve been listening to Martinu’s string quartets, which I’m ashamed to say I never knew. In terms of sound, I’m really looking forward to hearing how we develop as the new ASQ. We all have very similar ideals, but there will be a lot of shifting and changing for a while yet I think.”

Australian String Quartet

Alleged Dances

Adelaide Town Hall

Monday, February 29

asq.com.au

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