The further you go on your journey together, the greater the area you can explore – that’s what Sacconi Quartet, who have been together for 15 years, believe. Here they explain how celebrating their birthday has become an opportunity to break boundaries.
Finding ways to keep things fresh is an important part of any relationship, and a string quartet is no different. We’ve now been together for 15 years, so looking for new ways to connect both with one another and with our audience is increasingly important.
With that spirit in mind, here are a few of the projects we’ve taken on to celebrate our 15 years of music making.
We took part in a ‘hack’ (a symposium of technologists, freely exploring a particular subject for an intense period) in Bristol Watershed Studios for the Bristol Proms in 2013. This exciting meeting of minds conjured up many revelatory performance ideas that we are now trying to put into practice.
An example of this is Heartfelt – an idea conceived by a roboticist we met at the hack. The concept is that robotic hearts would be linked to each of the quartet and our heartbeats would be synthesised by heart monitors. The robotic artists Rusty Squid designed us these beautiful wooden boxes which closely related to the dimensions of a human heart. Each one was inscribed with one of our names. The audience were then encouraged to hold one of the quartet’s ‘hearts’ throughout a performance of one of Beethoven’s late quartets – Opus 132.
Beethoven wrote it after he had gone deaf, and while struggling with pain brought on by illness. In spite of these problems, this piece was Beethoven’s way of expressing thanks for the gift of life.
In Heartfelt the audience was encouraged to move freely around the space, and to share our ‘hearts’. This created unity between us and the audience – it was a special experience. An incredible lighting designer Ziggy Jacobs-Wyburn created lighting that was affected by our heartbeats, corresponding to moments of intensity and others of repose.
We had lots of very interesting feedback from audience members after the performances. They talked of mortality and spirituality and shared deeply personal thoughts and philosophical musings. We realised that so often one leaves a concert without really connecting with other audience members – the experience is generally insular – so it was nice to see an audience to stay for so long after a concert, everyone animatedly talking to one another about their experiences.
Beethoven in the Dark
Beethoven’s late quartets seem to be the ultimate choice when it comes to finding repertoire for these unconventional performances. Tom Morris, artistic director of Bristol Old Vic and Bristol Proms, encouraged us to commit another late Beethoven quartet, Opus 131 to memory and then perform it in the dark.
We have now performed this epic masterpiece twice in this way, and have another performance in Colchester’s Roman River Festival in September. It is an exhilarating experience for all involved. The idea is that we have no sheet music so that a lighting designer is able to control the lighting, creating moments of complete darkness and other times of ambient lighting that enhances the performance.
It is amazing how much the absence of light distils the sound and the music becomes even more powerful. Performing in this way feels much more vulnerable, and it felt like we were more connected as players – especially without the physical barriers of music and music stands.
We commissioned Jonathan Dove to write a piece for us and tenor Mark Padmore. The result is In Damascus with a libretto by Syrian poet Ali Safar about life in the Syrian conflict. We premiered it in our Folkestone festival and the London premiere was in our birthday concert in Kings place. It has been received very well and we feel that it is an important piece of contemporary music about an ongoing humanitarian disaster that needs constant attention and generosity. We hope that performances of this piece will inspire people to donate to the Refugee Council or other similar organisations.
We recorded In Damascus alongside Jonathan Dove’s quartet and piano quintet with Charles Owen for Signum Records to be released next year. It is always very inspiring to work with singers because often we are trying to emulate the human voice with our bows, and naturally the text provides a further dimension. Mark has an incredible insight into music and works in great depth, leaving no stone unturned. It was a very challenging subject matter to broach, and rare for us to be commenting on something so hideous that is happening right now. We are in talks with the Refugee Council to find ways to use this piece in the future to help them.
Beethoven & Mendelssohn String Quartets
We’re about to release one of our most important recordings – Beethoven & Mendelssohn String Quartets. The CD features Beethoven’s monumental Opus 132 quartet and Mendelssohn’s dramatic response to it – his Opus 13 quartet. Despite their connection, they’ve never been presented together on CD before – this is the first time. Written only months after Beethoven’s death, Mendelssohn’s second string quartet contains a staggering number of structural and motivic similarities to the older composer’s Opus 132. It is an homage to Beethoven’s mastery.
Sacconi Quartet is Ben Hancox (violin), Hannah Dawson (violin), Robin Ashwell (viola) and Cara Berridge (cello). Their new album Beethoven & Mendelssohn String Quartets is released on 1 September on their own Sacconi Records.