As a string quartet, you have so much repertoire to choose from - the world is absolutely your oyster. We come together at the beginning of the year with our individual wish lists and whittled them down until we got to the programs we’ve been working on throughout 2017. The words of Tolstoy have become the thread that wove our performances together this year, which has been incredibly special. In the past, we’ve named every program on a quote of Shakespeare, so this year we thought we’d mix it up a little bit and work with a different, but equally exceptional artist. In our first performance, we played the Kreutzer Sonata by Janáček based on Beethoven’s work of the same name which stemmed in inspiration from Tolstoy’s perfectly formed novella. We hadn’t considered Tolstoy before then, honestly, but through that Kreutzer Sonata link we became interested in his writings. See me as I am is a quote from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and it says so much about the works we’re performing.
We’ve wanted to program the Tchaikovsky quartet for a long time, so that was an easy fit for this final performance, as was the Shostakovich, whose major works we haven’t played very often. Those two pieces fit well together for many reasons, but particularly because of their personal nature - Shostakovich wrote the quintet because he himself wanted to play alongside a string quartet while Tchaikovsky wrote the quartet because he wanted to put a chamber concert on and thought he better have something to play! That’s particularly special - the fact it was his first piece of chamber music. The Beethoven quartet is perhaps the most personal work on the program, as he never intended for it to be played in public. There is so much of himself in the piece and you can really feel that in the music; it’s unlike any other work he wrote. I think the personal stories are particularly poignant and the nature of Tolstoy’s writing fits perfectly with this.
As a quartet, we’re driven by instinct when it comes to understanding the overall feel and interpretation of pieces, but we all bring our personal backgrounds when it comes to building a collective context for any work. We each have a strong understanding when it comes to Beethoven because we’ve been playing his quartets since we started out. When we performed the Beethoven Letters last year with John Bell, which was a project that had been in the works for almost 5 years, our playing was really strongly influenced by our understanding and research into his writings, and having that context has influenced all of our performances. When we play Shostakovich, we draw from the pieces of his we have performed in different areas of our work and it is the same with Tchaikovsky. We’ve all played his symphonies and ballets and we draw from those experiences. Everything you play, regardless of the context, has a huge impact on your chamber music performances and an understanding of orchestral scope and texture has really influenced the way we perform together as a group. When you play the quartets of Mendelssohn or Schubert you can hear the horns or the full cello section, and in Mozart’s chamber works you can imagine the opera! The experience of playing operas and ballets in a pit or Beethoven symphonies on stage teaches you the best lessons on voicing and texture and has helped us enormously on creating different sounds within the quartet. In any chamber ensemble, you’re a team and the greatest thing you learn is to develop your ear – what you’re listening for and how that can inform your own playing. You’re constantly feeding off one another and growing together, which is a wonderful feeling.
In the early days of Tinalley, we had the luxury of time and would spend days and days together digesting music; going over and under it and talking a lot. As you get older, you realise that you simply don’t need to speak about things as much! Now, we just get together and play, and if anyone has an idea our philosophy is that we try it straight away and give it 150%. Earlier, we would really debate this and disagree until we were going around in circles but we don’t have time for that anymore. Now we say “let’s try it” and if it works, great! We each have busy schedules, so we squeeze rehearsals in whenever we can as early as we can. Next year’s schedule is already locked in and has been for about two months. We also always make sure we know our own and each other’s parts before we turn up to that first rehearsal to save time: going in cold is just not feasible.
On top of the rehearsals and just learning all the notes on the page, we have to run the quartet like a business, and I think that’s honestly the most difficult thing for any chamber group. In the early days, we would get so overwhelmed by self-promoting concerts especially because of the time it takes away from practicing. When you’re studying and just at the beginning of your career, you’re still at this stage where you can usually be honing your craft in the rehearsal room for longer periods and suddenly you have this ensemble and thousands of emails to answer? You must know how to be entrepreneurial and business savvy and understand your tax return and that’s difficult when you just want to play. It’s something that we all still struggle with, in terms of striking some kind of balance. We’re all incredibly lucky to have full time jobs as well, so it’s a constant conversation about how to get everything done around the orchestral rehearsals and performances we’re part of. I try and remember that the performance is the most important thing and if doing a good job on stage is the difference between practicing and replying to emails, I’m going to put the practice first. I probably didn’t do that at the beginning of our time as a group, but now I realise that if you spend all your time doing admin and play badly, you’re not going to get another job.
We’re also constantly getting better at delegating, and when things get really busy in our non-quartet work, knowing that we can call each other and say, “I can’t do this right now!” has really helped. As a team, it’s so important to feel like you can ask for help and share the load. We do all of our own social media and copywriting, and the way digital marketing happens keeps changing so that is a constant but interesting challenge. The most important thing to us right now is that people can hear our music, and that we’re offering the best concert experience we possibly can. We’ve recorded one CD already this year and we’ll be in the studio again in December, which will ensure our audience can hear us wherever they are! That’s a really special feeling, that people all over the world can be part of our performances. We also choose to collaborate with incredibly interesting guest artists who we have a personal relationship with, then try to bring out those personal connections on the stage. That’s what this year and these programs are all about: music is personal, first and foremost. Works are not written by machines, but real people who lived and are living rich and complex lives and we want the audience to feel like they are part of those stories as soon as we begin to play.
Photo by Christie Brewster.
Tinalley String Quartet presents See Me As I Am at the Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House on October 1, 2017 and at the Melbourne Recital Centre on October 3, 2017. We have a double pass to give away for each performance! Fill in the form below to go in the draw.