The New Year couldn’t have got off to a better, more inspiring start. It was my great privilege to be given permission to go behind the scenes at the pre Lent Term Hans Keller Forum run by London-based ChamberStudio here at the Music Faculty in the first week of January. For those of you who haven’t come across ChamberStudio before, its purpose is to offer coaching and support to young professional chamber ensembles. The brain-child of violinist Richard Ireland, it was established in 2010 and is based at Kings Place in London. Happily for Cambridge, ChamberStudio has agreed to hold similar mentoring sessions here, generously supported by the Cosman Keller Art and Music Trust, but for student ensembles, rather than those who have not long launched their professional careers.
The ensembles taking part this academic year are the Kyan Quartet from the Royal Academy of Music, The Astatine Trio from the Royal College, the Hirvi Quartet from Trinity Laban and the Aestus Quartet from the RNCM. Mentors this time were the ‘cellist of the Doric Quartet John Myerscough and pianist Alasdair Beatson, who are both regular ChamberStudio mentors. And what a privilege it was to be given the opportunity to observe these two incomparable musicians at work.
I had been given permission to eavesdrop quietly on several of the sessions – but an immediate quandary faced me – which to choose. After a crotchet rest’s hesitation, I chose to follow the Aestus Quartet on their journey through Beethoven’s String Quartet op. 18 no.6. So, first a word or three on the work – this, the last of Beethoven’s first set of Quartets.
It took Beethoven quite some time before he felt ready to compose quartets. Understandable, perhaps, in that Haydn was in full flood in the 1780s and 90s – enough to give any composer pause for thought. Indeed, Beethoven spent time studying with Haydn as well as learning-through-copying his Op. 20 no.1 and Mozart’s K.387 and 464. Even then it wasn’t easy with at least the first two of the Op. 18 quartets subjected to serious revision. But he persevered (thank goodness) and Op. 18 no. 6 was completed in 1800 and published a year later. Already Beethoven is straying from the accepted model – does the work have four movements or five? Goodness, what is this between the third and final movements? An extraordinary intervention “La Malinconia”, a short, slow movement (only 44 bars) with an emotional intensity presaging the late Quartets. The Scherzo preceding it is also unsettling – is this 3/4 or 6/8? And if that weren’t enough the Allegretto finale has surprises up its sleeve as, just when you least expect it, the music screeches to a halt and returns to the “Malinconia” for ten bars then off again for four bars, a bar’s pause, two more bars of “Malinconia” before – having thoroughly disorientated the listener – returns to the Allegretto to end. So, a lot to get one’s teeth into (although maybe that should be one’s bow).
John Myerscough took the majority of the sessions on the work and from here on I found myself utterly absorbed in what can only be described as alchemy taking place before my ears. (I confess that as a – very – ex-violinist, the whole process had a special personal resonance).
So, what is the role of a good mentor? What it’s absolutely not about is rapping people over the knuckles every time there’s a mishap, but instead, to encourage, guide, and – yes – challenge but support towards an intended goal, helping to arrive at solutions technically and/or musically with which the ensemble is happy and which best convey the composer’s intentions. Believe you me, there is a whole arsenal of weapons at the string player’s disposal.
I need hardly say that John’s approach very much followed this pattern through questions and discussion and, where helpful, stripping the score back to its bare bones, simply playing the harmonic progressions so as to hear the direction of flow more clearly. Another tactic was to suggest slow practise of a particular figuration, perhaps at half pace and, if helpful, one part at a time perhaps offering thoughts on how bowing might be deployed to best effect – weight, speed, where on the bow, etc (and demonstrating, with supreme mastery, the end result they might aim for). Here’s the Alban Berg Quartet with their take on ‘La malinconia’:
Now, it would be inappropriate to go through each of the four sessions I attended and give away all the trade secrets, but instead, perhaps, to share with you some of the imaginative observations both John and Alasdair deployed at both general and specific level to help their groups think afresh and achieve their desired goals. Here then, (as Hans Keller might have said), goes…
- The ‘cello is the sun, warming the other instruments (no prizes for guessing who that one came from…)
- Don’t sound like a GCSE guide to playing repeats [i.e. it’s not necessary to vary repeats unless there is a real point]
- Horses do different things with their legs to ensure the right pace and keep it. [i.e. place and/or pace the bow accordingly]
- “Skeleton the music” [i.e. strip it to the basic harmonic progressions] to get a feel for the overarching shape.
- Dynamics have nothing to do with volume, but more to indicate atmosphere
- Hairpins are mystical things – nobody knows what they are for.
- It’s not meant to sound like a lorry reversing (this relating specifically to the opening bars of ‘La Malinconia’ in order to convey the character of the repeated notes)
- Open your wardrobe of dots: you have 20,000 to choose from
- The way you play a piece should keep the tempo…metronome marks can become an obsession
- Think about what two or three things you want to show the listener
- Just because Beethoven didn’t write a crescendo mark doesn’t mean he didn’t want one [i.e. be aware of the conventions of the time].
- Play figurations in a place where the bow is comfortable to achieve clarity.
- Be a perfectionist: you can miss it only once in a hundred times.
And here are the Aestus Quartet themselves reflecting on their time spent with John on Op.8 no. 6:
“We have loved working with John at the Hans Keller Forum. John’s approach was honest and incredibly supportive. He always encouraged us to demand more from ourselves and each other, not only in regard to technical issues, but also in exploring more imaginative methods of rehearsing.
We particularly enjoyed John’s razor sharp eye for spotting specific things we could change in the moment to make markedly large improvements, as encapsulated by this quote from John – “It’s not rocket science!”
We very much look forward to working with him again in the future!”
Thursday evening was devoted firstly to open mentoring and rehearsal sessions which – as far as I could tell – were hugely enjoyed and appreciated by those attending. After a supper interval of a perfect fourth, we were treated to a masterly talk by violist Simon Rowland-Jones (late of the Chilingirian Quartet, who were themselves coached by Keller) on the “inner workings” of Britten’s three String Quartets. The talk was illustrated with live extracts by the Medea Quartet. Listening to these brought home to me yet again (a) how inventive BB’s quartet-writing was and (b) how terrifyingly technically demanding it could be. I, for one, came away resolving to listen and listen again to these masterly works.
Friday, was back to work for the ensembles for a final day of mentoring, and so…
…it only remains for me to thank mentors John and Alasdair, and Leda, Chris, Beth and Clara of the Aestus for allowing me to eavesdrop. And last but not least ChamberStudio’s Richard Ireland for so generously allowing me in in the first place. And finally, finally, I must also thank Alasdair for the inspiration for my title, used during his work with the Astatine Trio.
Thanks for this vivid and inspiring account!