Fireside Chat - 'Meet the Musicians' Recap

On the evening of Wednesday 22nd March, the Junior Common Room (JCR) was filled with the sounds of string instruments and lively discussion of the role of great music, as the College’s Music Director, Kate Pitcher, hosted a Fireside Chat with a difference that gave residents and interested members of the Georgian Community the opportunity to get to know the musicians and ensembles of the Music at St George’s College Program.

First up were the youngest group in age, the String Quartet, whose members are predominantly high school students. The quartet won the prestigious Royal Overseas Schools’ League Ensemble Competition, eight months after forming in February 2016 under the mentorship of Paul Wright. This evening they discussed the role of music in their lives, and their ambitions for a future in it, before playing a short Novellette, the ‘Orientale’ by the composer Glazunov.

Next, the members of the Early Music Ensemble discussed what ‘early music’ means, how their instruments and methodology are different to modern ways of playing, and how they became interested in pursuing this style of playing. Many members of the audience were probably unaware that ‘early music’ usually refers to music from the Baroque Era, though it can refer to works as far back as Ancient Greece. The Early Music Ensemble focuses on bringing to life the works of the Baroque Era through study of the approaches of playing and types of instruments used at the time. For example, the strings of Baroque instruments are made not of steel (as are modern instruments) but from animal gut. The effect is a softer, more delicate sound, which partially explains why music for this era was usually written for smaller orchestras and ensembles playing in intimate spaces. The musicians noted that they practice in the College Chapel, as the acoustics there are very “resonant”, appropriate for this style of music, which was usually composed for the church or church-like spaces.

Violinist Sarah Papadopoulos talked about how her Baroque bow was shorter and more rounded than a modern bow, allowing for variation in volume and sound along its length: it has a natural “decay” to the sound due to the shape of the bow. She and fellow violinist Eliza McCracken, talked about the difficulty of learning to play their instruments without shoulder or chin rests, which weren’t an addition to the instruments until later in history. In fact, for all three musicians present, playing early music required specialist studies following their initial training on modern instruments. Cellist Krista Low said she became interested in Early Music because she wanted to explore different “possibilities” in expressing the music of that era. They then performed a piece from their repertoire, ‘La Ruggiera’ by Merula, noting at the outset how easily instruments of this period go out of tune, sometimes even going flat through a performance itself, though that problem wasn’t evident to this audience member.

While waiting for the final ensemble, Kate interviewed the man responsible for leading and mentoring the various ensembles: Senior Music Fellow, Paul Wright. Paul spoke about how he came to love music and be a virtuoso on the violin. As a child, he had been more interested in sport, and felt that playing the violin “kind of got in the way” of his ambition to be a professional footballer or cricketer. However, as he was “reasonably good” on the instrument by age twelve, his parents recorded him playing and sent it off to the Yehudi Menuhin School in Britain, one of the best specialist music schools in the world. When he was accepted, the whole family moved to Britain, and so began a lifelong passion for music education and an internationally renowned career as a violinist. After completing training at this picturesque boarding school, situated in an old Tudor manor in the countryside, Paul trained with famous teachers in Europe and America, before returning to Australia in his early twenties to teach and perform as a soloist with orchestras and other ensembles.

Paul moved the room, when he said that he believes that the best part of being a musician is that it is something you are meant to give to others – you as a performer are a conduit for the music to touch other people. He said that’s what makes him want to practice for all those hours: so that he can convey the power of any piece of music as best he can. He described great music as “medicine for the soul” and argued that great art and music “opens the soul”, connecting us with our emotions and thereby combating our tendency to desensitise to what is happening around us.

The finale for the evening was a performance by the Chamber Orchestra of St George’s College. This group was made up of young professional musicians, most of which had completed their tertiary music studies or were in their final year. Led by Paul, they played ‘Romanian Folk Dances’ a piece by Hungarian composer Bela Bartôk, based on the tunes of traditional Romanian folk dances, which Bartok had travelled around carefully recording from local peasants in different regions of that country. It was vigorous and vibrant and was a rousing send off to the evening.

Overall, this audience member left inspired and better informed about the Music at St George’s College Program and with a strong desire to attend their regular concerts in future.