July was a surreal month of music and culture for me and pianist Will Cesta, as we traipsed across Europe on a whirlwind pilgrimage of concerts, masterclasses, festivals and inordinate fun.
The tour kicked off in London, where we played for the United Kingdom University of Sydney Alumni Assocation’s annual gala event at the Royal Thames Yacht Club, attended by the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor. Our performance was well received, and we left with a hefty wad of business cards, learning the meaning of networking as only London can teach.
That evening, we were treated by the President of the Alumni Association, Mr Tony Chan, to drinks at one of London’s most exclusive hotels, the Mandarin Oriental; and, the following evening, to dinner at a top-tier restaurant in the Bank district. To see money fly thick through the air was an experience indeed, and it took some convincing to establish that we had not inadvertently stumbled onto the set of a British remake of The Great Gatsby.
While in London, we also received lessons from five wonderful musicians at the Royal Academy of Music, the Royal Guildhall School of Music, and King’s Place: violinist/violist Max Baillie, cellist Natalie Clein, a brilliant violist with the Academy of Ancient Music, violist Paul Cassidy (of the Brodsky String Quartet), and cellist John Myerscough (of the Doric Quartet). Will and I found them instructive and highly thought-provoking, and spent hours discussing their implications.
After a week bursting at the seams, we flew to Austria, to hear pianist Fazil Say perform with the Camerata Salzburg at Schloss Esterházy, Eisenstadt, the palace where Josef Haydn lived and worked for most of his life. It was a privilege bordering on time travel to hear a rousing performance of Haydn’s Military Symphony in the Haydnsaal, the very space in which Haydn premiered so much of his music! Eisenstadt also provided a charmingly provincial weekend retreat from the Big Smoke, in the form of a noticeably slower walking pace, and the heavy silence that envelopes the Austrian countryside every Sunday (conscientious objection by kebab shops notwithstanding).
Next stop was Finland, to attend the Kuhmo Chamber Music Festival. Kuhmo, 600km north of Helsinki, provided yet another brand of provincial charm: virtually untouched by architectural developments of this millenium, with two traffic lights in the entire town, nestled in thick forest and fresh air hugging the bank of a lake. We took lessons from Antti Tikkanen, Minna Pensola and Tomas Djupsjöbacka, the two violinists and cellist of the wonderful Finnish quartet, Meta4; and also from one of our biggest idols, violinist Daniel Rowland (leader of the Brodsky Quartet, among other ensembles). The advice we received on Bach in particular was revelatory, as was hearing Rowland demonstrate (on my violin, no less!) in our lessons. We were also selected to perform in a matinee concert at the Kuhmo Arts Centre; and, to our surprised delight, we were invited by Daniel Rowland to play in his chamber music festival in Stift, The Netherlands, next August.
The highlight, however, was hearing these musicians in concert. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, each performed by a different Finnish violinist, had a raw energy and abandon that perhaps only two hours of rehearsals could facilitate (or so we were told!); Piazzolla’s reply, the Four Seasons of Buenos Aires, with Marcelo Nisinman on bandoneon (who learnt from Piazzolla himself), held us spellbound and left us invigorated; and I found Meta4’s rendition of Schubert’s final string quartet among the most profoundly touching performances I have heard.
Everything about Kuhmo was a dream: talking with artists around a communal bonfire into the wee hours of the morning (when the sun finally set!); discovering rönttönen, a hardy Finnish dessert made of rye (rye!) dough surmounted by lingonberries; and sleeping (perfectly legally) under a staircase in a local high school to keep down costs (if it was good enough for Harry Potter, we asked ourselves, who were we to grumble?). I hope to return.
Our last lessons took us to Switzerland. In Bern, we played our entire Brahms sonata for the barefoot fiddler, Patricia Kopatchinskaja, another of our greatest role models. Witnessing the juices of her inimitable musical imagination flow in real time inspired us beyond measure. We also felt enormously validated by her instinctual approach to story-telling through sound, unfettered by the prejudices of style and tradition.
And in Basel, we played for Rainer Schmidt, second violinist of the Hagen Quartet. Having learnt from him in Salzburg last year with the Hillel Quartet, I arrived with high expectations, which were monumentally exceeded. Schmidt solemnly enjoined us to think like a composer – to understand why the composer made each harmonic and structural decision in the score. For Schmidt, music is a language, with meaning, like any other; and it is the musician’s job not merely to produce sound, but to convey that meaning through sound.
Abuzz with ideas, Will left for northern Italy while I caught the train through the immaculate Swiss mountainscape on a personal pilgrimage to Verbier, home of the jewel in the crown of European summer music festivals. The village is a delightfully haphazard congregation of chalets perched improbably halfway up a mountain, commanding a view of the valley below that still mesmerised after five days. I heard a stirring performance of Bruch’s Kol Nidrei by the young French cellist Edgar Moreau, and attended a fascinating masterclass by Russian violin pedagogue Zakhar Bron. But my chief interest was in Quatuor Ébène, the Parisian string quartet whom I had followed for years but never heard live. Again, my expectations were shattered: their Beethoven ‘Serioso’ communicated an intensity that left me gasping, while their Ravel was rapturously transportive, and their jazz encore scintillating.
I then drove 400km to Cervo, northern Italy, to rejoin Will at a recital by Patricia Kopatchinskaja and her duo partner, pianist Polina Leschenko. Sprinting up through the dark warren of medieval alleyways, I burst into another dream: a piazza transformed into a sea of swarthy Italians in freshly starched shirts and sundresses, sprawled over the church steps and leaning out of windows, surrounding a stage on which stood, miraculously, a concert Steinway. Neither of us had expected an outdoor concert, which made for a surprisingly intimate acoustic. I found Patricia’s narration of Poulenc’s Sonata and Ravel’s Tzigane at times confessional, at others folksy, and always compelling and exhilarating.
Returning to Verbier the following day, I ascended the mountain to hear Quatuor Ébène one last time. They played Mendelssohn’s final quartet, drenched in the pathos of a son mourning his mother. It was the greatest thing I have ever heard, and rendered me inconsolable – I have rarely felt so grateful to be alive. The concert finished with a dazzling performance of Mendelssohn’s sunny octet, led charismatically by Josh Bell. It was, serendipitously, the perfect end to a superlatively inspiring month.
Will and I are sincerely grateful to Ms Anna Melville, Artistic Administrator of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for helping us to connect with artists; likewise to Ms Yarmila Alfonzetti, CEO of Sydney Youth Orchestras; to Ms Helena Rathbone, Principal Violin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and to Mr Michael Hope, for their efforts to connect us with concert presenters; to Mr Tony Chan, President of the University of Sydney United Kingdom Alumni Association, Ms Miriam Waters of the Alumni and Development Division of the University of Sydney, and Cantor Jason Green of the New London Synagogue, for their generous and enthusiastic facilitation of our London visit; to Ms Seija Kähkönen, for looking after us in Kuhmo; to Professor Anna Reid, Dean of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, for all her support; and to Mr Peter Weiss AO, for his interest and continued encouragement.
Benjamin Adler, Bachelor of Music, 2015