Classy quartet of musical equals

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The Badke Quartet is the embodiment of team playing, with its four members from disparate backgrounds united in their passion for the music. They talk to MICHAEL DERVAN

THE ODDS ON the four individuals who make up the Badke Quartet ever becoming the Badke Quartet must have been pretty low. For a start, they’re all from different countries – well, nearly. The leader, Heather Badke, is from Boise, Idaho. Second violinist Emma Parker is English, but she grew up in the US before coming back to London. Viola player Eniko Magyar is Hungarian, and cellist Jonathan Byers hails from Belfast.

Their backgrounds are also diverse. Badke’s was a medical rather than a musical family. She encountered the violin on a day out, when she came across “a bunch of Suzuki children playing in the zoo, for fun”.

Her mother asked, “Would you like to do that?” She thought it “looked fun”, so she said yes. She was all of 17 before the idea of becoming a professional violinist took root.

Emma Parker’s family is hard-core musical. Her mother was a professional cellist with a special interest in period performance, her father a musicologist who has held professorships at Cambridge, Oxford and, currently, at King’s College in London. She started piano at four, but gave it up. Then she took up the cello, but also gave that up (“My mum was driving me mad, because she was teaching me”).

Eventually she took up the violin (also studying Suzuki method), came back to England, and went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, which is where the members of the quartet first met up. She knew from a young age that music was going to be her career, but only discovered that chamber music would be her special niche when she met up with the other members of the quartet.

“At the academy you do all sorts of work. But I found this, and still find it, the most challenging and the most rewarding.”

Eniko Magyar’s family was not particularly musical. But her mother spotted her musicality early on, because she was singing and tapping out rhythms all the time. She went to a musical kindergarten, and when she was eventually asked which instrument she would like to play, she chose the flute. Her first instrument, as for so many children, was the recorder. Yet, when she went to music school at seven, she was too young to learn the flute proper and she refused to continue with the recorder. She wanted something “really serious”. And when her “nice long fingers” were spotted, she ended up as a violinist.

She had a difficult relationship with her last violin teacher, and after she graduated, she thought of changing direction and considered singing, piano and journalism. The viola became a lifeline (“I simply fell in love with the voice of the viola”), led her to London, and to the Badke Quartet, where, late last year, she replaced the group’s original viola player, Matthew Jones.

Jonathan Byers comes from a musical family – his father, the composer and former BBC producer David Byers, is currently chief executive of the Ulster Orchestra. “I went into the peripatetic system run by the City of Belfast School of Music. Apparently I had a rather large handspan at seven, so I was given a choice between violin and cello, and opted for cello. I did love it from the start, although it was the bane of my life for years, having to cart this big piece of wood around and getting laughed at by the other kids. And probably from my early teens it was pretty clear that I wanted to have something to do with music as a career, probably the cello. I still think to this day, what would I do otherwise? And I’m not sure.”

I met up with the quartet at a rehearsal in London’s newest venue, King’s Place, a pragmatic/philanthropic arts centre that lives in a commercial office building in King’s Cross at a peppercorn rent.

Chatting on the stage of the empty hall, they give the very strong impression of a group of individuals who have all found their true calling. At the moment they all do other work, whether it’s in regular orchestras, period orchestras or solo projects.

“We all agree,” explains Parker, “that when we do stuff outside of the quartet, we always come back with fresh ideas, fresh inspiration from whoever you’ve been working with. We try to be accommodating so that we can all do bits and bobs outside of the quartet, because we really feel that it enriches us. When you play with the same people all the time, it could get to the stage where you’re so used to each other that things don’t really feel spontaneous. It’s really good to have fresh influences.”

Byers does a lot of work as principal cellist in baroque orchestras, including the Irish Baroque Orchestra, where Parker also plays.

“Especially for our classical repertoire,” she says, “it’s fantastic to have that input.”

“Working in the IBO with Monica Huggett you’re working with someone who has recorded lots of the repertoire that we play,” ,” says Byers. “To work with her, glean ideas from her, and actually to talk to her about her ideas on things, it means you come back feeling the better for it.”

The basis of good chamber music playing, says Parker, is respect. “Fundamentally, you all have to respect each other’s playing. You have to be all on the same musical wavelength. If someone’s trained in the Russian school, it might be a bit incongruous with people who’ve been trained by a brown-bread and sandals, baroque-style English player.

“In the end, though, it’s more of a personality and dedication issue. There’s no hierarchy in a quartet, and if one person were to sit and try and rule over everyone else, then it doesn’t make for a good performance. It has to be give and take. We all have to sacrifice ourselves and our ideas in order for it to be one unified sound. And the first rehearsal we had together was amazing. It was the fact that everyone was listening, everyone was very attentive. It really did feel like we were making music in the first rehearsal.”

THEY GAVE THEIR first concert not in front of an anonymous audience but, rather nervously, in front of a distinguished gathering at the International Musicians Seminar in Prussia Cove, Cornwall, where the listeners included the likes of cellist Steven Isserlis and violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy, founder of the Takács Quartet.

Now, seven years on, they have a major competition success behind them – at the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 2007. They hold the Senior Leverhulme Chamber Music Fellowship at the Royal Academy of Music. And through the academy, they have the use of two Gagliano violins, a Grancino viola, and the Segelman Stradivarius cello. It’s hardly surprising that each of them seems more than content with their particular role in the world of the string quartet.

Byers is unambiguous. “I love bass lines. I get a massive kick out of being the bottom force in the group. You have a real power to steer things, because the bass line is so important. Occasionally you get your odd, shining moment, where the cello gets the tune, once in a movement or something. It’s a nice balance.”

“I like the bass line and the support,” says the second-lowest-sounding member, Magyar. “But what I really like about the viola is the sound of it. When I go to a quartet concert, with a good quartet and a good viola player, and the viola has a tune, and it’s played in a beautiful way, it just gives me so much happiness. It’s just a very special instrument, I think. I like to surge in the quartet, as well, with this brown sound. The sound needs to be different so that it will make the whole quartet sound richer, and warmer. That’s what I really enjoy.”

VIOLA PLAYERS ARE a maligned group within the musical profession (Google the words “viola joke” if you’ve missed out on this phenomenon), but second fiddle is a description that’s got far wider currency.

Parker loves the role and shrugs off all the negative connotations. “I know a lot of second violinists who’ve said to me, ‘One time the first violinist went out, and I played her part, and I could play it better than her.’ I would never want to be first violin, most of all, because I think what I’m good at, and what I enjoy the most, is supporting other people.

“Ever since I’ve been very young, I’ve been good at doing impressions, and copying sounds. And the biggest challenge of a second violin is that you have to have two voices. I have to be able to blend with the lower guys, and have a thick, dark, rich sound. At times, I have to sound like the first violinist, if I have a solo. Or if I’m playing a duet with her, I have to sound as violinistic as her. It’s a constant challenge to blend, but to be different all the time.”

Badke says she feels she belongs in the leader’s chair. “I feel most comfortable playing first violin. I think mainly it’s because I have the freedom to experiment. There are a lot of technical pressures. But when you have the freedom to be expressive, that’s the most important thing for me. I don’t think I could do the second violin job as well as Emma. It just doesn’t feel natural to me. I think it’s actually more difficult what she does. It’s nice in our quartet. We all know our role, we know how to do it to its best. We respect each other enough to learn from each other as well, even though we do very different things.”

The Badke Quartet’s Music Network tour of works by Haydn, Ian Wilson and Schumann runs from Tuesday March 24th to Saturday April 4th, www.musicnetwork.ie

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