This was the opening program for the Australian String Quartet’s 2016 season. Sandwiched between two traditional offerings: a Beethoven and a Schumann quartet was a world premiere of a quartet with percussion by Australian composer Matthew Hindson and excerpts from John Adams’s Alleged Dances, ‘alleged’ because apparently it was thought that you couldn’t actually dance to them, although now (they were written 20 years ago) various choreographers have worked with them.
The Beethoven quartet was well known to me – the last of the ‘early’ quartets, opus 18, number 6 in Bb major. For some of the time I thought about the commendable practice of standing, followed by these players – except for the ‘cello, who sits on a raised platform. Standing gives the players more freedom and for violins and viola, is probably a more natural way to perform (if playing any musical instrument can be ‘natural’). The allegro was very ‘brio’ and it reminded me of the playing of students at the Australian National Academy of Music, who, with their brilliant technique, can dare to take things at rattling speeds. I felt that because of this some of the playing wasn’t absolutely clean – but that is an unreasonable niggle. What struck me most was the incredible pianissimo passages – particularly the opening of the ‘La Malincolia’ last movement, which was magic.
Matthew Hindson’s quartet was commissioned by the Australian String Quartet with the assistance of a group of benefactors. The composer wrote the program notes in which he tells us that the piece is to do with beginnings – beginnings, where you don’t know what will happen. This idea was beautifully expressed in the second movement of the piece, dedicated to Hindson’s baby daughter. As Hindson says, ‘the possibilities seem endless and extraordinary’ as he watches his daughter develop, wondering what kind of person she will become. He says that the vibraphone is the perfect instrument to express his feeling of love for his daughter. The quartet had just two movements: a lively first and then the more tender, slower, second. For me the echo-like vibrations of the vibraphone added a mellowness to the strings.
After interval came John Adams’s Alleged Dances. We heard just three from the collection of ten: ‘Judah to Ocean’, ‘Habanera’ and ‘Rag the Bone’. Originally there was a percussion ‘track’ that went with the dances. For this performance, percussionist Claire Edwards had arranged a percussion line. There was more than vibraphone – she was described as having ‘everything including the kitchen sink’! ‘Judah to Ocean’ describes a particular tram route in San Francisco that runs from North Judah street to the waterfront. We hear bluesy melody and tram-like clattering. The mood of ‘Habanera’ was apparently said by Adams to be a lament for a season without baseball. The jazzy, lively ‘Rag the Bone’ is presumably also an evocation of San Francisco.
The concert concluded with Schumann’s String Quartet in A minor, opus 41, number 1. I enjoyed the anachronistic language of the program notes (by Gordon Kerry) suggesting that Schumann became interested in the string quartet at a time when his wife Clara (a pianist) was on tour and he was ‘upset at being treated as a mere handbag’. Good on you, Clara! It resulted in this beautiful quartet that I hadn’t heard before. Once again the Australian String Quartet played with amazing delicacy, extraordinary dynamic contrasts, and vivacious energy in the final presto.