BY ELSABETH PARKINSON
The musicians of the Penny Quartet knew very early on that they were onto a good thing. In their ensemble’s first year, they won ANAM’s annual Chamber Music Competition, earnt a Travelling Fellowship, and were nominated for the prestigious Freedman Classical Fellowship award. Following those 2014 achievements, this young Melbourne-based group has gone from strength to strength, studying with the St Lawrence String Quartet, presenting recitals across Australia, and collaborating with composers and contemporary artists alike.
For the quartet, 2017 is about to wrap up on a high note with its final performance for the year – and its first-ever solo outing at the Melbourne Recital Centre. On the eclectic and wide-ranging program, a Beethoven colossus stands alongside Stravinsky miniatures, and contemporary Australian composer Liza Lim shares the spotlight with 17th-century Bohemian violinist Heinrich von Biber.
Madeleine Jevons is the Penny Quartet’s second violinist, as well as a freelance musician who has worked with (among others) Orchestra Victoria, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. In a backstage break, she took the time to chat to CutCommon about the Quartet, the concert and the music.
Hi Madeleine – thanks for joining us! To start out, as a freelance musician, what does it mean to you to be involved in your own chamber group?
To run your own ensemble is so intensely rewarding and challenging. I’m so proud to work alongside three incredible musicians and friends – it still amazes and thrills me that they want to do this with me! Having total artistic control is pure luxury, and while prioritising a budding chamber music group is not always the most practical thing in the world, there is nothing better.
What is the programming ethos of the Penny Quartet – what do you guys like to play?
We all have pretty different tastes, actually. But luckily, we usually agree on the things we really enjoy. And that’s basically the ethos: we want to play stuff we love and care about.
New repertoire discoveries are always exciting – we have had a tendency to jump on pieces we discover on YouTube and then to spend weeks sourcing the music; like I said, not always practical. The other side of our programming is the fact that Beethoven rocks, and pretty much all standard quartet repertoire is absolute gold. Hopefully we live to 300 so we can play it all!
In terms of programming a concert, Amy has a bit of a knack for that and we often follow her lead. We have recently been playing with the format of performing something old, something new and something in-between in a program. In 2018, in the Melbourne Recital Centre Local Heroes series, we’re experimenting with the idea of curating an atmosphere and a mood over each program instead of ticking repertoire boxes.
So how did you choose the works list for your upcoming recital?
As established above, Beethoven rocks. We wanted to play some, and we thought we’d just start at the beginning! Op. 18 No. 1 is one of my personal all-time favourite pieces, it’s too good. The slow movement breaks my heart every time I even practice it. The Stravinsky is a really great little set of miniatures which are just super fun to play, and the Biber comes out of that in a surprisingly cohesive way. Amy discovered the Biber; she’s so clever.
The Lim is all about weaving in and out of each other in different intricate ways, using sound, gesture and texture – and in a way, that’s kind of what all chamber music-making is. Just a bunch of instruments having a chat!
At the concert, you’ll be giving the Australian premiere of Liza Lim’s piece The Weaver’s Knot. What’s it like to work with the composer on her own music?
We are so lucky to be working with Liza. She has been very generous with her time via emails and in person, and very patient with all our questions. It’s so cool to hear first-hand what Liza wants out of the sound, and really helps us get into the music on a deeper level. Working with the composer of a piece is the ultimate luxury – and stops group debate about what something means on the page very quickly! (Massive time-saver.)
What’s important for you about programming and performing contemporary works like this one?
I think we have a responsibility to program good new music. As a relatively new group, we also want to bring something a bit different to the table. So much interesting stuff is being written, and if it’s well-presented it opens up a whole new world to audiences and musicians alike.
Supporting composers like Liza is vital for the Australian music scene, and often things like this The Weaver’s Knot are put in the ‘too-hard basket’ because they’re a bit different. I think that the more groups perform these works, the less left-of-centre it will become, and more people can enjoy a different approach to music-making.
Since Penny Quartet’s first violinist Amy Brookman broke her wrist in October, you’ve been playing with Harry Ward as a guest violinist. What has working with Harry been like, and has this change shifted the group dynamics or altered the way you approach the music?
Harry is a legend, we are so lucky he had only just returned from overseas study and had nothing booked yet! It’s definitely different. Having three of us who are used to playing together all the time on the three bottom parts makes everything feel pretty solid still, which is nice, and Harry is free to work his magic up top. Harry is also our cellist Jack’s brother, which has made for an entertaining time as well as actually working really well (phew!).
Amy has been coming to rehearsals a little bit, too, and it’s actually really cool to have a fifth ear, so to speak, getting a big picture from outside the group.
What’s coming up for the quartet in 2018?
As I write this Amy, is at the hospital getting the cast off her wrist! So she’ll be back for our first concert in February at MRC. We’ll be playing a Local Heroes series there, plus some regional touring, some more collaborations with groups like the Ad Lib Collective and singer Lotte Betts-Dean for Play On…an array of stuff! With more to come.
The Penny Quartet (Madeleine Jevons, violin; Anthony Chataway, viola; Jack Ward, cello; Harry Ward, violin) will present its concert The Weaver’s Knot at 6pm, November 27 in the Melbourne Recital Centre.
The Weaver’s Knot (Australian Premiere)
Three Pieces for String Quartet
Heinrich Franz von Biber
Sonata XI – Fidicinium Sacro-Profanum
Ludwig van Beethoven
String Quartet in F, Op. 18, No. 1