O Bratsche, Where Art Thou?

As published on http://www.cutcommonmag.com

Let them eat cake. And drink coffee. And let it be free, too. This will help entice them to come to a chamber music concert on a weekday morning.

Ah geez, of all the barnacles clinging to our cultural memory bank, I’ve gone for the one with connotations of aristocratic condescension and elitism as the opening line of an article on classical music! Damn connotations. I really don’t mean to suggest that someone in the programming department of Musica Viva is like Marie Antoinette, or that MV thinks of their audience as ‘them’. So, just stop being so judgmental, alright? It’s just a play on words, because there really was an array of free cake and coffee before the Tinalley String Quartet concert on Tuesday the 20th at 11am, and Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was nearly full. Think about that: Nearly full, a Tuesday, 11am.

It’s quite incredible, considering how classical music died sometime in the last century. I can’t tell you the exact year of death, as there seems to be an obituary every few years, but it’s definitely dead. Or is it dying? Well, one of those. One foot in the cultural grave in any case, like books, poetry, reading – you know, words. Words are dead, music is dead, everything good and beautiful is dead dead dead! Dead and buried at sea like that stoic string quartet in the movie Titanic, a symbol of all the artistic traditions drowned in the wake of humanity’s poorly-captained pursuit of progress and growth at all costs. Well, we all have an iceberg in our blind spot.

That’s what they say, anyway, those prognosticators of demise. And just like vinyl records, radio, television, the movie industry, face-to-face conversation and grammar, the modern world still hasn’t killed off classical music. 11am on a Tuesday! Nearly full, reader! That’s really amazing. Hundreds of people, enduring an internal pas de deux between a caffeine high and a sugar-induced food coma, watching a string quartet play Haydn op.20 no.5 and Beethoven op.59 no.3. I guess the lesson to be learned is: don’t trust the opinions of writers.

Oh. Better move on before that sinks in. Hey look! Here comes a


So, did someone say string quartet? Tinalley Quartet?




Tin Alley does exist; it bisects the University of Melbourne campus in Parkville, just above the Conservatorium of Music. It seems reasonable to deduce that the original members took this as their name when they were studying there, a valiant effort to avoid the tendency students have of naming a chamber group in emulation of Europe’s vaunted tradition. When I was doing my Bachelor degree, the quartet I fought with – oops, played with, I meant to say – tried to name our group after my teacher and his Swiss surname. He laughed in our faces and deflated our burgeoning pretension with a flick of the wrist. Despite our embarrassment, we knew that he was right; the Tinalley Quartet evidently possessed a similar wisdom and was rewarded for its local gaze with an unconventional and memorable name.

Its members’ student days are long behind them of course, and indeed, if one word could encapsulate their playing, it is: professional. I know that sounds backhanded, but it’s 99% a compliment. 99% compliment, 1% a gentle, no-contact backhand. Everything was so polished, so pristine; the Haydn was pure and the style blessedly free of anachronisms, and these were wonderful qualities. If you’ve never tried to play a Haydn quartet in tune, let me assure you that it’s as fraught with risk as scratching an eye in the midst of chopping up a hot chilli. One false move amongst all your delicate care and the sting will be immediate and regrettable. No red eyes or regrets on this particular morning; I can’t recall a single moment that was out of tune, and the slow movement was poetic and beautiful.

And yet, it was all so…respectable? Respectful? Both? I already undermined my own opinion above so feel free to ignore me, but I definitely like my Haydn (or Mozart, or etc…) to have a dash of the disreputable. There’s a notion that music from Haydn’s time connotes a certain ‘refinement’, but his was an epoch before daily showers and plumbing and antibacterial hand wash, and the dirtiness of that life must be in the music, don’t you think? Shouldn’t we catch whiff of the sour note of body odour which all that perfume is trying to cover up?

It was similar in the Beethoven, the music served wonderfully by the Quartet’s precision and yet not quite coming alive because of it, too. The opening chords of the first movement were daringly played senza vibrato, and here the perfection was mesmerising: a nebulous cloud of suspense seeped out across the stage, and I thought of the space-walks in 2001: A Space Odyssey and the creation scenes of that Terence Malick film I walked out of a few years ago. (I think that film has no clothes, but I might be a philistine. We’ll find out in a minute.)

After this wonderful opening, it never quite took off. Again, high precision, control and beautiful phrasing, but I missed the boisterousness of the first movement that can make you want to jump out of your seat and do a set of star-jumps. Then again, it was 11am; a performance at this time is undeniably a different prospect to an evening concert, the air is just not charged in the same way. Still, the only time control weakened its grip was at the beginning of the fugal last movement. The rapid subject bolted away like a dog spotting the neighbour’s cat, and each new entry of the theme had a clenched-jaw tinge of panic, a dog-owner’s desperation to grab the leash trailing through the dirt and avoid it all ending in a puff of cat fur. Happily, the cat lives on, but there may have been some stiff jaws by the end.

I don’t feel great about myself for putting that in, for two reasons: firstly, I know that panic. It only hits on stage; one person gets a bit jumpy and it spooks everyone like teenagers playing with an Ouija board, and soon you’ve got a runaway ghost train to contend with. Secondly, because the fugato starts with the viola, I’m concerned it seems like I’m pointing the finger at him, as if trying to emulate the bullying ways of ol’ cranky-pants Hanslick, even using the German word for viola (die Bratsche, 2 syllables) in the title.

I’m not though, and for a very silly reason: for most of the concert, I couldn’t see him. I mean, I could see him, but I couldn’t see him.

(This is getting weird, I know. But understand that I’m not referring in any way to the violist’s playing; that’s important. What follows is a half-serious rant merely about the location of the instruments on the stage. Going to be a strong finish, eh?)

Of course he was on stage the whole time, on the outside of the formation like so many quartets do nowadays. Famous, renowned quartets, full of musicians with far greater abilities than I and who must see or hear some fundamental benefit to sitting (or standing, like the Tinalley) with the cellist in the middle and the violist opposite the first violinist, playing to the back of the stage. So I must be the philistine and The Tree of Life not pretentious nonsense, because I just don’t get it. To me there are only negatives: the viola sound is less present in the balance of the instruments, and now he has his back to me. The result is a disappearing magic trick – it’s as if he froze into an iceberg right there on stage, and vanished before my eyes. It’s so bizarre. I have viola-specific myopia.

I’ve seen plenty of other quartets who arrange themselves like this, and it’s quite common that when the viola has a big melody, the violist will deliberately turn out to play more at the audience. What does that say about this formation? None of the other instruments need to do something radical when they have a grand moment, so what is the implication of this? It’s like someone standing up to ask a question at a town hall meeting: literally, to be seen and heard. Isn’t it? Am I crazy? Does this formation have no clothes? Am I an ignoramus? Is this too many rhetorical questions? It is?

I guess it doesn’t matter at this point. I’ve railed against a seating arrangement, suggested Haydn should be a bit dirty, haven’t praised a fine ensemble enough for what they deserve, and shamelessly made use of a clunky segue for my own amusement. And there was that opening line, where I possibly offended someone at Musica Viva for implying they devise concert series by channelling Western history’s most famously spoiled Queen.

Sigh. Well, it’s done now. I suppose I’ll just sit here and wait for the iceberg to hit. Any cake left?

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