Radical rule-breaking and back to basics
There is a time for artistic licence – and a time to focus on basics of performing: William Brooks on Yeats, and string quartet masterclasses at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival
The West Cork Chamber Music Festival is more than a long series of concerts. It encompasses public interviews with performers, a forum for instrument makers, a competition for young composers and performances of their works, and masterclasses for young ensembles, who get to play the young composers’ works. I dropped in on some of this year’s masterclasses, all featuring string quartets coached by members of visiting ensembles.
In the musical world teaching perspectives differ almost beyond belief, and not just in relation to the music itself. When a player signs up with a new teacher, a restructuring of the fundamentals of playing technique can be on the cards.
Masterclasses are of the nature of a flying visit. Analysis and advice are given, but there is no real opportunity for monitoring or follow-up. The consequences, though, can be far-reaching.
The messages in Bantry were clear. There were basics to be got out of the way. Do what the composer says. Is there a crescendo there, and if not, why are you playing one? Is there a rest there, and if there is why are you still making a sound? Are you playing what’s in your heart and in your mind, or are your hands and fingers over-riding them with what comes easiest? In other words, is the instrument coming before the music?
The sessions were intense. Social and professional niceties were carefully and quickly observed, and in no time at all the minutiae of rhythm, dynamics and articulation were being put under the microscope. When it comes to nuance and inflection, a second is forever, a couple of milliseconds are the measure of right and wrong, and being out by a tenth of a second can cause a horrendous musical clash.
The tutors I saw at work – Barnabas Kelemen of the Kelemen String Quartet with the Cairde and Chiral Quartets; and the brothers Abel Tomàs Realp and Arnau Tomàs Realp from Cuarteto Casals with the Cepheus Quartet – were fearless. They poked and prodded and persisted until they got results. It’s to the full credit of all the young players involved that they showed themselves to be so adaptable – the playing at the end was nothing like the playing at the beginning.
But, then, nobody was being asked to do the undoable. And it’s hard to resist someone like Barnabas Kelemen when he has you in fits of laughter, exaggerating his own Hungarian accent to show you how Hungarians stress the first syllables in words as a guide to getting the right kind of snap in the rhythms of a Bartók quartet.