Australians give a sign of good things to come

By William Dart

The Australian String Quartet took part in AK07's Twilight series, with Ravel and contemporary Australian music that may well have tempted some new punters for the group's upcoming full-scale concerts.

I caught up with cellist Rachel Johnston, a New Zealander who was part of the group when, as the Tankstream Quartet, it started to score successes on the European competition circuit a few years back. Now, with a change of name and the increased status it entails, the four are settled, secure and busy in Australia.

For Johnston, this is a dream opportunity. "So many people don't have the chance to do it," she says. "It's not just a matter of working hard, it's a matter of luck and, when you are lucky enough to get this position, you make the most of it."

She admits they "get around quite a bit" with four national tours a year, not including overseas appearances and special projects, such as joining the Jerusalem Quartet for Mendelssohn's Octet later this year.

They have appeared in converted shearing sheds and delivered the first Beethoven quartet to be played kilometres below sea level when they entertained an audience of miners down a BHP Billiton mine.

Perhaps this resilience is the result of "growing up in countries that are not central to the classical music tradition", Johnston suggests.

"We have all grown up in small towns, had to travel to teachers and searched out our education, even more so in New Zealand than in Australia."

On the road during this New Zealand tour, audience response has been keen, especially in smaller centres.

"We have just done Invercargill and, after we'd played the Berg Lyric Suite, this little girl in the front row jumped up and down, clapping furiously. When we played it in Sydney people said it was amazing and then admitted they were not sure whether they really liked it.

"Audiences here come to things with their ears open and minds open as well, and children have the advantage of not being told that music has to be tonal, and doesn't have to be in a key."

The Berg work is on the bill for both Hamilton on Saturday and Auckland next Tuesday.

"It is still very much new music for some people, even though it was written in 1926. It's an incredibly rich piece. At first it might be like listening to someone reading poetry in a foreign language but you can be drawn into the textural sophistication. You can start to hear phrases, words and lines."

Johnston likes the way this classic of the Second Viennese School will be complemented by the music of Vienna's most beloved musical son, Franz Schubert.

His isolated Quartet movement is much more than a first movement looking for three companions, she says. "Sometimes people say it's a shame he didn't continue on and finish it, but it's a little jewel, and feels so complete."

And, as for the Death and the Maiden Quartet which completes the programme, Johnston doesn't pull any punches. "You'd have to be dead not to enjoy that piece."

Johnston is full of tales, from penury on the competition circuit to being teased by composer Carl Vine about hearing every note in his Third String Quartet. "You can either have all the notes," was the quartet's response, "or have it played at 120 beats a minute. Write back and let us know."

Like our own New Zealand String Quartet, the ASQ take their local composers seriously. "It's our responsibility to be ambassadors for the country," Johnston explains, "although I'm totally on the job getting us to play some New Zealand music. Next time we come over I am going to make sure there's something Kiwi on the menu."

*What: Australian string quartet
*Where and when: WEL energy trust academy of performing arts, Hamilton, Sat 8pm; Auckland Town Hall, Tues 8pm

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