How do you choose the right pieces for a concert performance? How do you cope with life on the road as a touring musician? And, what does technology mean for the future of the string quartet? Rather than idly ponder one, two or all three of these questions we put them to a man who knows a thing or two about each of them; Ori Kam, violist with Jerusalem Quartet, who perform here at Southbank Centre in December.
A greatly experienced string ensemble, Jerusalem Quartet first performed together in 1996 and have grown to become a regular fixture on the world’s greatest concert stages. The quartet consists of violinists Alexander Pavlovksy and Sergei Bresler, cellist Kyril Zlotnikov and violist Kam who kindly answered our questions.
Why did you choose the pieces on your Southbank Centre programme, and why do you think they work well together?
When choosing pieces for a programme, we like to pick works that show off the string quartet as an instrument in as many faces as possible. We also try to show the connection between composers by using a common genre, and how each composer operated on a continuum of string quartet writing as opposed to the way we often think of composers, namely as islands.
In this case, we have a quartet by Haydn in which the listener can clearly hear the basic ideas of a four voice composition. Haydn uses distinct divisions of the voices into groups to form homophonic and polyphonic music. In his music, it is always clear what the main voice is, who are the accompanying voices and when there are secondary roles. Beethoven, who was Haydn’s student, takes the same thinking of four voice writing, but introduces more complexity. The accompanying figures are more important and sometimes almost overshadow the theme in importance. Polyphonic writing is more prevalent and more intricate.
Debussy, surprisingly perhaps, wrote his quartet following the same guidelines as Haydn. The first movement follows sonata form, and the last is said to have been modelled on the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. Even though these three composers are clearly giants of innovation and ingenuity, there is much more that binds them to each other than individualizes them.
How has your quartet evolved over the years? Are there particular areas of the repertoire that you want to explore? And how do you balance revisiting repertoire on the one hand and playing fresh pieces on the other?
I think we take great pride and joy in striving day-to-day for ever better, and deeper, understanding and presentation of great masterpieces. We love what we do and share a profound commitment to sharing this love and vision of the music with audiences. We feel very fortunate to have people come and share this with us, which makes the travel and absence from home worth it. I think I speak for all of us when I say we would like to keep doing what we do, expanding our repertoire, and deepening our relationship with these great masterpieces.
What's the secret to a happy life on the road?
We have a working formula for how much we can do, how far we can go, and how many pieces we feel comfortable to take on. We are no longer 20 years old, and are fortunate to be able to set limits on the scope of our travel and performances. We’re also lucky that we have a fantastic team supporting us. And each of us have our own mechanisms for staying healthy and happy on the road. I, for example, make sure I can exercise three times a week, and travel with a yoga mat to counter the many hours of sitting on planes, trains and cars.
What are the best and worst things about playing in a quartet?
A quartet is the largest ensemble where every player can maintain their individuality while still allowing for complex and varied musical writing. However, as individuals with strong musical convictions, the worst thing is being dependent on three other people for every decision.
Who is the single most influential string quartet composer?
I think it is without a doubt Haydn. He was the first to treat this ensemble as a special ‘perfect’ union of four voices, and set the ground rules that still govern much of how quartets are written today.
How do you think the string quartet as a genre will evolve in the next 100 years?
This is such a difficult question. Technology is evolving so quickly, but with all the amazing advancements, we still haven’t seen very successful integration of new technologies into the basic experience of listening to classical music. I think there is a fundamental human experience of listening to acoustical music that perhaps does not need to evolve.