It took us a year or two to find our identity as a string quartet. We fairly quickly realised that we needed a point of difference if we were to become known as more than just a “gigging” quartet. And apart from this, we found ourselves playing quite a bit of new Australian music and loving it. Right from the start, we programmed in composer Lyle Chan's music. Lisa and Stefan, our first violinist and violist (as well as our married couple) had heard his music performed by pianist Benjamin Martin and thought it was absolutely gorgeous, so contacted Chan to see if he had anything for string quartet. From that point on (2010) we programmed something of Chan's in almost every concert.
Our big break came in 2011 when we performed some of Elena Kats-Chernin's works as part of a Conservatorium teachers' concert. Kats-Chernin was present at the rehearsal and concert and approached us afterwards with a project she had been wanting to do - to record her complete works for string quartet in a double CD - and she felt we were the right group to pull it off.
This project (our CD Blue Silence was released in 2012) really set us up for our identity as a new music quartet. Now, we tend to play melodic compositions, beautiful or fun pieces, because as an ensemble, we are best at emotional compositions. Since that first project, we have been approached by Australian composers to record or perform their works. We feel extremely lucky to be in this position and have enjoyed performing and recording pieces by Joe Twist, Sally Whitwell, Moya Henderson, Gordon Kerry (coming up in 2018), Nick Wales, Nick Vines and of course, Lyle Chan.
When programming concerts, we program mainly what we like to play. This has ended up being a mirror reflection of your typical quartet program: mostly new works with one standard repertoire piece (rather than mostly standards with something new thrown in). We love playing Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy but specifically program them in also because we feel we need a drawcard for our audience. The audience may come away from the concert raving about the Golijov or the Chan, but they don't always come to a concert for those names first and foremost. This concert, for example, has the draw-card of Ravel's string quartet, but we've paired it with a brand new composition by Lyle Chan, a funky rhythmic piece by Alvarez, a short Shostakovich and Golijov's gorgeous Tenebrae.
When it comes to our preparation schedule, we have always rehearsed weekly rather than being project-based. Up until this year we rehearsed three days a week, something we have not been able to sustain this year. We've reduced to two days a week with the optional third day as concerts approach. We do anywhere from 5 to 7 hours per day, careful to take breaks when we notice tempers fraying or hunger setting in.
Lisa is very good at planning and sets us specific pieces or movements to rehearse each day: it is easy to get bogged down in a difficult movement and completely forget to rehearse something which feels easy, but none-the-less requires work!
We have also learned to do as many run-throughs as possible, ideally in front of an audience, even if it's only an audience of one. It's only in a concert situation like a run-through where weak spots really show up and we learn which parts are likely to give us trouble.
The other very important piece of advice we were given is to pace ourselves on the day of a concert. Rest, and even naps, help to prepare us. Soundchecks should be taken literally – to check the sound but not to rehearse or change anything. By the time you get to the soundcheck, your rehearsal time is over.
Hear the Acacia Quartet at the Melbourne Recital Centre on Saturday 4th November at 6:30pm. Tickets and more information here.