Can you create a string quartet when you yourself are not part of it? Does a state need to have its own string quartet to earn credibility on the world musical stage? These two questions have been rattling around in my mind ever since I learnt that the management of re:Sound Collective, who already run a small orchestra in Singapore, felt that Singapore “needed” a full-time, professional string quartet.
All the string quartets I know were formed by the members themselves, often having begun their musical relationships as fellow students or members of an orchestra, feeling that they would like to work more closely and intimately with each other. As these quartets have matured and founder-members dropped out, new members have been recruited, often by audition; and those new members invariably tell of how difficult it was to “fit” into an ensemble which had originally been founded on friendship and commonality of background. But I can’t say I’ve ever heard of a successful string quartet coming into being from scratch as a result of public audition; which is not to say it’s impossible – just not the way things are usually done. Neither do I know of any string quartet that has been formed as a symbol of a state’s musical worth; plenty exist which came into being as a result of all the players being in the same place at the same time (think Fitzwilliam, Dartington, Endellion), but are there such things as “national” string quartets? Again, it’s not the way things are normally done, but that does not mean to say it’s impossible.
The members themselves decided to call it the “Concordia” Quartet rather than, say, “Singapore” Quartet - it’s inevitable, I suppose, that the name Concordia already exists in a well-established quartet on Cyprus, and I believe there are also Concordia Quartets in the US and Australia – and I wonder if the name, completely free of national or even linguistic implications, is the best choice for one which was deliberately created to help put Singapore on the chamber music map. But that’s not really the point. The point is, Singapore hardly “needs” a string quartet. Barely a month goes by without a well-established string quartet visiting Singapore (on March 5th, for example, the Verona Quartet are here – their publicity blurb states proudly that “The Quartet’s members represent four different nations”) and Singapore’s chamber music aficionados have ample chance to experience live string quartets at home. Is the creation of a “Singapore” string quartet anything more than musical xenophobia; a further symptom of the growing and (to my way of thinking) disturbing increase in musical isolationism which one detects in Singapore’s classical musical environment?
I’m wide open to being persuaded that you can create a string quartet from the outside, and that Singapore will benefit from having a “professional, full-time” one to complement the established T’ang Quartet (who, in any case, tend to promote themselves as being something different from the usual run-of-the-mill quartets). But having sat through the Concordia’s debut concert at the weekend, I remain unconvinced. The Concordia had none of the polish, musical conviction or sense of camaraderie you look for in professional, full-time quartets, and while one can make allowances when it’s a student or other group brought together for a one-off concert, since this concert promoted itself on the strength of the Quartet’s professionalism, my own feeling was one of disappointment. I reviewed it for Straits Times:
Another Journey Begins
Concordia String Quartet
Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice
Saturday (1 February)
Most professional string quartets come into being when the players feel they would like to move into the rarefied world of string quartet playing in the company of some close colleagues. Here is one which was created by external forces; the management of the re:Sound Collective deciding that Singapore needed its own full-time string quartet, and searching around for potential talent.
They came up with two Singaporeans, a Korean and a German - violinists Edward Tan and Kim Kyu-ri, viola player Matthias Ostringer, and cellist Theophilus Tan. As the Concordia Quartet they made their debut on Saturday at an appropriately new venue on the Singapore classical music scene, the Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre at Wild Rice on the 4th floor of the newly-rebuilt Funan Centre, signifying its days as a building peopled solely by computer geeks are past.
This may well prove to be Singapore’s finest venue for chamber music. Strongly reminiscent of London’s Globe Theatre cut in half, the seating is not so much tiered as vertically stacked, giving everyone a wonderfully direct view of the stage and a strong feeling of involvement with what is going on there. That this is, primarily, a theatre was driven home at the very start for, just as the Concordia Quartet had come on stage, it was plunged into total darkness.
The idea here was to evoke visually the sunrise which is said to be the inspiration behind the opening of Haydn’s so-called Sunrise Quartet. As the players began to play, the lights rose until the four of them were bathed in a bright, white circle of light. Sadly, the message had not reached through to the musicians themselves whose playing remained steadfastly monochrome.
Here we had four players who knew the notes and had clearly been well-drilled in the techniques of string quartet playing, but who never really took ownership of the music or showed convincing commitment to it. The lights were on, as it were, but nobody was at home. This was playing which, a few issues with tuning and ensemble aside, was correct but soulless.
Haydn is a composer whose music few musicians can ever play without a smile on their face; but not a flicker of a grin crossed the serious visages of these four. They were no more willing to let their collective guard down for Schubert’s Quartettsatz, which got a decidedly lacklustre play-through.
Perhaps it was first-time nerves for, after the interval, and with Beethoven’s First Quartet, the players began to mellow. Some of them even broke into miniscule smiles and, very occasionally, glanced across almost happily at each other. By the third movement, this performance had begun to warm up nicely.
This was a journey which began well enough, but there is a long way yet to go.