Silver string to Goldner’s bows

The Goldner Quartet in its early days. Clockwise from top left are Julian Smiles, Irina Morozova,...
The Goldner Quartet in its early days. Clockwise from top left are Julian Smiles, Irina Morozova, Dene Olding and Dimity Hall. PHOTO: KEITH SAUNDERS
Being able to get up on stage and perform to an audience on their first tour since Covid-19 hit has energised members of the Goldner Quartet. They speak to Rebecca Fox about being on the road again.

Reaching your 25th anniversary is always special but for a string quartet to reach a quarter of a century with all its original members still playing is a real rarity.

It is made even more significant by the fact the quartet is made up of two married couples — Dimity Hall and Julian Smiles, and Dene Olding and Irina Morozova.

"We saw it as a great achievement. In these times it is very unusual for a string quartet to keep its membership. I can’t think of another quartet still playing who haven’t changed membership," Hall says.

So it was quite a blow to have the tour of Australia that had been planned to celebrate the milestone scuppered by Covid-19.

"It was a great shame we missed out on that celebration," Smiles says.

So their visit to New Zealand, their first tour since Covid hit, is more meaningful to the musicians even if it is now their 27th year.

"It makes it all the more special that we are able to do this tour," Hall says.

They are enjoying being on the road again as they travel the country in two cars, one for each couple.

"We’re a bit out of practice, packing our suitcases and getting through Customs and all of that. Some of that we haven’t missed. But it’s nice to be back in front of audiences," Hall says.

The couples, who play together in the seven-member chamber music group Australian Ensemble, formed the quartet in 1995.

They named it after violinist Richard Goldner, founder of Musica Viva Australia, an organisation which promotes chamber music.

Their London debut at Wigmore Hall in 1997 received critical acclaim, leading to invitations to play at prestigious United Kingdom and European festivals as well as tour the United States, Asia and New Zealand.

They put their longevity down in part to being married and also to not playing in the quartet full-time.

"We’ve been constant but we’ve all had other interests. Some of us from time to time have played in orchestras, some of us have been university lecturers, some have had solo careers or played as guest chamber musicians all around the place," Smiles says.

"The quartet is often something we come back to and it’s a return home, a feeling of familiarity and comfort. I think that’s kept it alive, not being under pressure to do as many concerts as possible every year."

But at the end of the day it comes down to the unexplainable.

"It’s just worked for us somehow and we were lucky. You never know that when you form a string quartet or any chamber group. Very often it goes spectacularly wrong — with us it has been the opposite."

Playing in a quartet is considered to be the pinnacle of achievement for a string musician and is also the pinnacle of demands in terms of sound matching for instruments which have different registers but are essentially the same sort of instrument, Smiles says.

"You have to make the sound of one instrument with 16 strings and for that reason every aspect of the way you make sound from the intonation of the sound to the dynamic texture and colour, all these things have to be finessed so they match well. At the same time we want to maintain our individual voices within that texture.

"I think that has been the strength of the quartet over the years — that we all four do have individual voices and opinions."

To do that requires democracy and strong robust discussion about what the music should do in various places.

That sometimes means relationships get put to the test. The conversation musically between four people requires each to justify their musical case, which takes some thought.

"We have to criticise each other, hopefully constructively, and take that criticism. The demands of quartet playing are unlike any other medium playing together to a very high degree. Hopefully we have learnt to play together after a couple of decades," Olding says.

The quartet launched itself with Beethoven.

"In so many ways the things he did with a string quartet which were revolutionary at the time ... have stood the test of time as far as their art history and eloquence and the fact that this guy wrote these pieces 200 years ago but somehow they speak to you in a very human sense. You recognise the emotions in the music as if you are experiencing them yourself," Olding says.

Given the quartet has been playing concerts for 27 years around the world, it is difficult for the musicians to pinpoint their highlights.

"There’s been a lot," Hall says.

But they do agree their major 20th-century retrospective and the complete Beethoven string quartet cycle are among them. They performed 17 quartets over three weeks and it was all recorded for CD.

"That was a little bit of pressure and quite a lot of work."

The musicians are enjoying being back on the stage and the road again. PHOTO: ANDREW RANKIN
The musicians are enjoying being back on the stage and the road again. PHOTO: ANDREW RANKIN
Smiles describes it as "like climbing Mt Everest".

The recordings released on ABC Classics won the 2009 Limelight Award for Best Classical Recording.

As well as the classics they have enjoyed playing music from the 20th and 21st centuries. They have also commissioned Australian work.

Twentieth- and 21st-century music "encompasses many countries, many styles, many composers", Smiles says.

"I enjoy personally the complexity and skill of the composers and also I think the way music is going in more recent times is very good. Gareth Farr is a prime example, the audience respond well."

Olding says the influence of indigenous cultures on more recent work is also positive and is happening in both New Zealand and Australia.

"It’s very healthy and enriches the music greatly."

"It gives it a distinctive style as well," Smiles says.

They also enjoy their work with Australian classical pianist Piers Lane and did with the late Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe.

"The last time we toured here was with Piers," Hall says.

At the other end of the spectrum, the quartet is playing tiny concerts in small towns like in Australia’s north, Morozova says.

"We’ve done the spectrum from little tiny concerts which are sometimes very poignant and you make a real connection with the audience which is not always easy to do in a large concert hall," Smiles says.

"We’ve played in very prestigious places and we’ve played in the Australian Outback."

They have also played in unusual musical destinations such as Brunei.

"It’s been a really interesting life."

One of the hardest things about the Covid lockdowns was they were not able to play together even casually at each other’s houses.

"It’s much better to play together than not," Hall says.

As a result of the experience and in celebration of being able to tour again their programme has deliberately been collated to create an uplifting and joyous feel.

"It’s to really celebrate the return of live music and international touring.’

They have selected composers from New Zealand and Australia, featuring Gareth Farr’s Te Koanga and Ross Edwards’ White Cockatoo Spirit Dance, both of which they describe as being joyful and uplifting as well as featuring bird sounds.

Also on the programme is Felix Mendelssohn’s String quartet No 1, Opus 12 and Antonin Dvorak’s "American" string quartet No 12, Opus 96.

"I think in addition to birds, three of four of the composers have a love of nature, are comfortable when speaking musically about nature. Farr is the obvious and Edwards," Olding says.

"It’s great to be playing one Australian composer and one New Zealand composer on the programme. They’re both fine works."

At the end of the tour, the quartet returns to the Australian Festival of Chamber Music, in Townsville, North Queensland, where they are the quartet in residence.

"We’ve been going to Townsville for 20 something years. We’re looking forward to going back there."

Festivals allow musicians to do repertoires they often do not get to do in their normal season in a concert hall.

"It’s fantastic for us as musicians to play with other musicians, meet new people, hear them play, combine in different ensembles. So it gives you a fresh injection of musical ideas," Hall says.

"I think that’s something the audience picks up on as well. They can be very exciting performances at festivals. Sometimes not always successful, sometimes spectacularly successful."

To see

Goldner Quartet, Chamber Music New Zealand National Tour, Civic Theatre, Invercargill, June 18; Glenroy Auditorium Dunedin June 20.

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