03 February 2020

String Quartets: A Source of National Pride?


Image result for Concordia String Quartet
 
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: 

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Another Journey Begins

Concordia String Quartet

Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice

Saturday (1 February)

Marc Rochester

 
 

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.

6 comments:

  1. The answer to the first question is: yes, of course. Even though it may be unusual.
    But then creating a string quartet deliberately is unusual. The typical state of affairs is that people get together to play quartets (etc), and then sometimes find that a few years have passed and they are still doing it, and that they get on quite well, and want to make something a bit more permanent out of it. That's how quite a few marriages happen also, I think. Of course, some form a quartet so as to perform at one or more paid or unpaid events, and after some time also find that this can become a steady arrangement.

    An interesting question is not whether a quartet *can* be formed by a non-member, but *why* it would happen. I guess two reasons:
    i) commercial interests. The Beatles like other groups of their time may have been self-selected. But that is not always the way now: the Spice Girls, Little Mix, and pretty much every J-Pop and Korean pop bans are organised by promoters. But the old model is still alive and well, Blossoms being a good example. But unlike pop bands, string quartets are rarely a good commercial proposition. So it must be that
    ii) someone wanted to act as a match-maker for non-commercial reasons. Altruism ? in Singapore ? Yes, I'm with you there. Arranged marriages, or at least gently-nudged marriages by concerned parents, are still not so unusual; but that is still within the family. Here we have a "musical collective", (also a rather rare species) who want to "enrich the musical landscape" of Singapore.
    So I take it as an action within a close-nit musical community, interested in promoting something seen as being for the common good, rather than just for individual musical or financial gain.
    Surely, you of all people would be supportive of such an aim.

    Gregson.


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    1. Dear Gregson, Some excellent points you raise here, and I find myself in agreement with them. Singapore does not "need" a string quartet, but if it does want one to claim as its own, it reflects badly on Singapore's musical environment if that quartet does not show the kind of musical and artistic standards the world expects from something which claims itself to be "full-time professional". I am sure it will grow and evolve well, but it should have hit the ground running, not learnt to walk, as it were, in the full glare of lavish publicity claims.

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  2. I’m puzzled by your second question – does a state need to have its own string quartet... ?
    The fact there is an Australian String Quartet, a New Zealand SQ, a Danish String Quartet, a New Hungarian String Quartet, as well as a Tokyo SQ, a Jerusalem SQ, and many others, and that they often have some sort of “ambassadorial role” (to quote the Jerusalem SQ website), would suggest that some people think the answer is yes.

    But, as far as I can see, that is not what Concordia is about anyway. I have looked at their website and on-line publicity, and cannot find a claim that Concordia is in some way a state string quartet. Was that something that you saw from the programme notes ?

    A Straits Times article calls them “a new Singapore string quartet”, and somewhere else there is blurb saying “Singapore’s new string quartet”. But to me that doesn’t position them as a state string quartet in the same sense as the Staatsoper, Staatsballett, or in other fields a state pension or a or a state airline. Isn’t the reference to Singapore just to indicate being in or coming from, more like Singapore fried rice, English muffins, French windows, and Japanese encephalitis. These do not suggest being state-run, they are just associated in some way with the name of a state.

    Gregson

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  3. Dear Marc,

    although I wasn't at the concert, I do have some thoughts to share.
    I do agree with you that string quartets or chamber groups should be self-created.

    However, having just produced some of my own concerts, I think the difficulty of going independent is also of funding,
    the costs of concert venues are significant, and one has to do much of the grant writing, sourcing for sponsors, etc, marketing and promotion, ticket sales and employ a team for stage management and sound recording. There are of course public grants, these usually do not cover 100% of the costs, one has to cough it up and be reimbursed much later on, often after many emails with bureaucracy pouring over the digits. Without your own capital, there's no way of presenting your concert in Singapore, unless you have a venue sponsor. When you're at university, it's easy to maintain & keep a group going.

    From my own experiences, I have started up chamber groups, from wind quintet, to trio, which shrank down to duos and decided to go solo, just as I could not find equal collaborators of the same artistic vision, and commitment, which you speak of. Most musicians would rather be told where and when to show up and told what repertoire to play, and the fee already negotiated. It is a sad state of affairs. I of course, understand everyone has their own commitments, and perhaps they are raising a new family and the living costs in Singapore are high.

    Perhaps with your honest review, I hope these "chamber" organisers and presenters I believe who have good intentions, would back off and give the musicians more space to explore, grow and make their own artistic decisions. There's no point in making chamber music if you wish to run it like an orchestra. Chamber music is built on mutual trust, respect, democracy and dialogue. Let the artist be the artist. And too many cooks do spoil the broth.

    I have discussed this issue with my producer, and he has told me that only with financial independence comes artistic freedom. One can hope that there will be better "marriages" between sponsors and artists in the future? If there was some way to bring costs/rentals down, I think that will lead to much more independent music-making. I spoke to an American oboist, and the way they present chamber music is at smaller and intimate venues such as restaurants, in San Francisco and New York. I think if we think more out of the box, and engage the audiences, the ticket sales would be enough to cover the concert costs and lead to more genuine chamber music-making.

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  4. Thanks for putting these excellent thoughts into words. I agree so much with what you say, and it leads me to ponder why, in Singapore, not only are most classical concerts free but some places, notably the Esplanade, actually boast about the number of free concerts they offer. Surely, free music equals dead music? Why pay for music when you can get it free?

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    1. Hi Marc,

      hmm certainly a great question! This sounds like a Final Exam question for my university students, thank you! :D

      I am figuring it out, but am tempted to just run-off and play for a pop star as their back-up musician.
      I think pop music has it better or it has at least more room for diversity.

      It is a mixture of things: 1) an oversupply of trained classical musicians in Singapore 2) a saturated and small market 3) and not enough labour laws to protect musicians 4) what use is music, besides piano lessons...

      Well, at least Esplanade does pay their musicians. For many local orchestras, musicians are often expected to perform for free. I was thinking if the most vulnerable foreign construction workers are not protected, why would musicians be protected?
      Greetings,
      Jo Anne

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