Last November in Hamilton, the Rothko Quartet carried off top prize in the Pettman/ROSL Arts International Chamber Music Competition. The audience was treated, among other things, to a stunning performance of Schnittke's String Quartet No3.

Last week, in a concert mounted by the Auckland String Quartet Summer School, the group - Olivia Francis, Emily Bouwhuis, Alex MacDonald and Cameron Stuart - gave Aucklanders a taste of their Waikato triumph. Inevitably, Schnittke was the highlight. The zest and brio of youth was irresistible as they moved, unfazed, from heavenly 16th century cadences to careering slabs of dizzying dissonance. Gladiatorial one minute and conspiratorial the next, as the score demanded, they laid out colour ranging from the stark to the luminous.

Violist MacDonald says the Auckland-based group very much relates to the philosophies and practices of American painter Mark Rothko, so borrowing the name was logical.

"Rothko's work is plainly about colour and light," he says. "This is on a similar abstract plane to the music we deal with."


In July, thanks to their Pettman/ROSL win, the Rothkos will travel to Britain for a month of coaching and concert-going, as well as taking on five of their own gigs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Anticipation runs high. Violinist Bouwhuis looks forward to the experience of travelling and touring as a quartet, as well as to Edinburgh.

"I told my non-musical friends about them," she says. "Everybody had heard of that festival."

For cellist Stuart, there will be the wonderful opportunity of "playing with other musicians in quintets and sextets".

MacDonald says: "Meeting teachers and having tutorials will be really good for our careers."

The four musicians formed the group last July for an Auckland University chamber music exam and say it was a revelatory experience.

Violinist Francis still finds playing in the group to be very exploratory.

"We spend so many hours together, discussing and arguing through ideas."

Stuart values the freedom of expression and interpretation that this combination of instruments brings and MacDonald describes it as "the whole package".


"The string quartet has the same calibre of repertoire as piano or orchestra - and composers take it seriously."

These musicians are quick to enthuse over favourite concert moments of last year. MacDonald predictably enjoyed a 25-minute trip to musical heaven in November, when Maxim Rysanov played the Schnittke Viola Concerto with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.

Still, there's nothing like doing it yourself. As Francis points out: "You can rehearse as much as you like, but when you bring the music to an audience, there's this real crackle in the air."

Their choice of the Schnittke Quartet came from some heavy immersion sessions with Kronos Quartet recordings.

"We needed something spectacular," MacDonald explains, having been so impressed by the Kronos musicians he had to check it was a quartet coming out of the speakers, not a string orchestra.

Schnittke's patchwork, drawing on Lassus, Beethoven and Shostakovich, means the piece was "like putting a jigsaw together", says Francis.

"Yet the pacing and the structure - everything's in the score," adds MacDonald.

All four are excited about a new work being commissioned from Alex Taylor, winner of last year's SOUNZ Contemporary Award. Taylor has played alongside them in the Auckland Youth Orchestra. "He'll write something tailored to our personalities," says Bouwhuis. "It will be interesting to see what he comes up with, as we've set no boundaries or restrictions."

On stage, the Rothko Quartet exude the vigour and freshness of youth, strengthened and focused by a dedication not always to be expected in a world of easy-grab culture. Yet they are quick to tribute the nurturing hand of tutor Elizabeth Holowell.

"We wouldn't have done it without her," says Stuart.

After agreement all round, Bouwhuis has the final word: "We might think we're playing perfectly, but Elizabeth just adds that little touch that brings it all to life."