`I’m the new boy. I’ve been 18 years here'

The Vanbrugh Quartet discuss the highs and lows and the state of classical music in Ireland after 30 years of music making

The Vanbrugh Quartet: they will receive the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala concert on Sunday

The Vanbrugh Quartet: they will receive the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala concert on Sunday

 

The Vanbrugh String Quartet, RTÉ’s quartet in residence from 1986 to 2013, will receive the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala concert on Sunday. Here the members discuss their inspiration and advice, and what has changed in there past 30 years of making music

GREGORY ELLIS, FIRST VIOLIN

What’s the different between the state of music in Ireland in 1986 and 2016?

When we arrived [from London] we were aware that music wasn’t a priority. Things have changed and a lot has been achieved, though music in schools still needs a lot of work. There’s a hunger for music and the kids respond marvellously. But there are many schools which don’t have access to music at all, which seems a travesty.

What is your best experience as a quartet player?

The experience of playing living music with the composer present and the uncertainty of not knowing how it will go down. When it goes down well that’s extremely satisfying. And it’s also very special when you manage to play beyond what you thought you were capable of.

And your worst experience as a quartet player?

In Breda in Holland where we had a concert was on a Sunday. We thought the concert was in the evening, but it was in the afternoon. So when we arrived to rehearse the audience had already gone home.

Who is your musical hero?

On the fiddle, as a teenager Pinchas Zukerman and Itzhak Perlman were just such an inspiration: their congeniality and warmth. Those two really switched me on to playing fiddle and chamber music as well. And the Amadeus Quartet.

What career might you have had if you hadn’t become a quartet player?

Before I wanted to be a violinist I was going to go into the navy. And looking back, maybe a professional gardener.

What advice do you have for any aspiring quartet players?

Keep at it. It’s a sacrifice. There’s always the temptation to join an orchestra where you have a regular income. Keeping the wolf from the door is the big issue. 

KEITH PASCOE, SECOND VIOLIN

What has changed since 1986?

In 1986 I was in the Britten Quartet, and we later did a residency in Queen’s University, Belfast, and gave our very last concert there in 1995. I knew very little about Ireland, though we played at the Great Music in Irish Houses festival with Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen. I was impressed at the turnout, and curious to know more. I’m the new boy in the quartet. I’ve been 18 years here. And even in my time I’ve seen enormous change. Lots more venues; there are now two professional quartets; Music Network is very busy. I think things have changed for the better.

Your best experience?

Rediscovering that I loved playing string quartet repertoire. Because after my first experience I vowed never to do it again.

And your worst?

In Italy, when we’d invited the ConTempo Quartet on tour with us, and they told us they had got our job [as RTÉ quartet in residence] and then we had to play a concert with them. I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was devastating.

Your musical hero?

Schubert at the moment. I’m about the conduct his Ninth Symphony here in Cork.

And your alternative career?

I would have gone into international relations, or languages. I’d actually started a degree in those subjects before I got the call from the Vanbrughs.

Any advice?

Don’t expect too much too soon. It’s a long game.

Favourite non-musical pursuit? 

If I could afford to do it still it would be flying. I leant to fly a plane, but I haven’t done it for many years.

SIMON ASPELL, VIOLA

The state of music now?

There was very little going on in 1986, and there were very few venues for us to play in; only a handful. Now there are new spaces in Wexford, Navan, Cavan, Sligo, Letterkenny, Bray, Thurles, and the new Triskel in Cork. There’s a lot more music happening now.

Your best experience?

The Beethoven cycles we’ve done, and in particular the one we did for our 10th anniversary, over a single weekend.

Who is your musical hero?

Pinchas Zukerman for the beauty of his sound. Peter Schidlof from the Amadeus Quartet, such a wonderful musician, with fabulous tone. And my teacher, Stephen Shingles, who used to be the principal viola with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, who had the most glorious, nutty tone.

Any advice?

Have patience. Respect your colleagues. And practice hard. It’s the old adage, 98 per cent perspiration, two per cent inspiration.

CHRISTOPHER MARWOOD, CELLO

How have things changed since 1986?

When we came in from London in 1986 we didn’t have a strong overview of how things worked in the country. We just tried to learn our trade and then go out and give as much as we could, play as much as we could, and work with everybody around the country. Now there are so many established and fantastic up-and-coming musicians here. It’s not an easy world to work in, but there’s a lot of activity going on.

Your best experience?

Aside from some lovely collaborations with other musicians, I’m sorry but you have to go to Beethoven.

Your musical hero?

Every time I put on a recording or a video of Jacqueline du Pré I just melt. She is just a force of nature, it’s hard to fathom where it all comes from.

An alternative career?

I don’t think there was anything else I wanted to do. In my early 20s I turned away from music for a while. But I went on a chamber music course in Italy under Emanuel Hurwitz. That turned me completely around. From then it was just music and quartets.

Any advice?

Keep together. Be patient with one another. Explore the repertoire. Play together as much as you can. And try and find another way of earning money to keep your quartet playing going.

The Vanbrugh Quartet will receive the National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at the NCH on Sunday. See nch.ie

 

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