Flinders Quartet in Concert

May 30, 2012 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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The Flinders Quartet cleverly used the theme of silent inspiration to present three diverse and challenging works in the Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House, writes Fraser Beath McEwing.

The Flinders Quartet

What do Beethoven, Smetana and Bowman have in common? Besides being significant composers they all suffered hearing impairment. Using this as a common thread to affirm that music is principally an activity of the mind before it is released as sound, members of the quartet told the story of each composer before they played his work. The program comprised Beethoven’s String Quartet No 16 Op 135 (his final composition), Smetana’s String Quartet No 1 in E minor and Bowman’s Elegy.

The Flinders Quartet has build an enviable reputation over the eleven years since cellist Zoe Knighton enlisted the help of three other string players to help her through her final university performance exam. Currently, Matthew Tomkins (violin) Helen Ireland (viola) have been joined by accomplished violinist, Cameron Hill, who is sitting in while Erica Kennedy takes leave to make an addition to the Australian population.

The program opened with Calvin Bowman’s Elegy, a moving piece of sad reflections with modal references reminiscent of Vaughn Williams. Bowman was not only in the audience but took to the stage for a brief explanation of the work. In a pre-concert chat he told me that he is profoundly deaf in the right ear. This has not stopped him from becoming a successful composer in several genres as well as elevating him to performance level as an organist. As an aside, he mourns the permanent removal of the organ from the Melbourne Concert Hall, meaning that several popular orchestral works calling for organ participation could not be properly performed and would have to be moved to the Melbourne Town Hall where the organ is in fine voice.

While Bowman’s Elegy did not call for the pin-sharp entries and exits of the later works, it exposed the quartet to special demands on legato and tone. It was here that I fell in love. Zoe Knighton’s cello sounds were so exquisite that I found myself always waiting for her next brief solo phrase to make me again imagine wood-smoke and Constable paintings. While she may opt for the quartet life permanently, if she ever appears as a soloist, I’ll be there.

Although he could never hear it played, Beethoven’s string quartet is a tribute to musical invention, taking us through classical symmetry, the occasional wild harmonic ride and the pervasive controlled grandeur that is the hallmark of Beethoven. The Flinders Quartet always had it under control often relying, I felt, on the strength and confidence of Cameron Hill.

Fraser Beath McEwing

The Smetana had different challenges for the quartet. The form is quite relaxed compared to the Beethoven, with the players often going off on expeditions of their own and then being expected to snap back into line.
Again, the performance was assured, right down to the tiny pizzicato finish.

String quartets do not generally attract big audiences, which is probably why the Flinders chose the Utzon Room, which it managed to fill, rather than rattling around in a much bigger space. But there is another side to it. The Utzon Room is ideally suited to a string quartet. The acoustics are excellent and the audience gets to become intimately involved in the performance rather than receiving it from some distant stage.

And I still can’t disconnect from Zoe Knighton’s cello.

Fraser Beath McEwing is an accomplished pianist and commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation Advisory Board which provides assistance to talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of three novels.He is a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home.

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