Esme Quartet win Wigmore Competition

I’ve followed three differing competitions over the past ten years, all spanning a range of musical genres. All of them, the most recent being the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition, are linked by a similar personal experience: investing in the process, backing a winner, hearing the result, after which an intense feeling of self-loathing descends.

In the case of the Wigmore winners tonight – the Esme Quartet – I was surprised they won, but not in any way disappointed. There are no weak players in a competition like the Wigmore. Its an impossible competition in that respect. We’re observing differing levels of musicianship, different interpretations, and different sounds. It’s those differences which are at the heart of the listening experience that makes the ranking of competitors a (kind of) redundant process.

What I’ve enjoyed most this week is the opportunity to get closer to chamber music. It’s been like discovering me and the OH have another floor in our house on which there are number of new rooms to peer inside. I really value those new opportunities. Such new excursions are what keep me sane(ish). Listening to contrasting performances has flexed my listening muscles (so to speak).

I was backing the Goldmund Quartet. I adored their playing and found their presence on staging captivating. But I’m not sorry they didn’t come first (that would unsporting to the Esme and incredibly mean-spirited to third place Viano). What helps sustain this art form is the idea demonstrated once again here that different people hear things in different ways.

There’s the chance to watch over the whole thing again tomorrow and see what I missed too. Maybe then I’ll process through the odd sense of self-loathing I’m experiencing – that unsettling feeling of having regretted getting quite so involved in and enthused by something which is now at an end and forgotten about. More on that story in a future post.

2018 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition Final streamed live on Facebook and YouTube

Yesterday saw three semi-finalists selected for the Grand Final of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet. The three quartets who've secured their place in the final – Goldmund, Esme, and Viano, have already won a cash prize. Who gets awarded what is decided in the final that starts at 6pm tonight, streamed live on Facebook and YouTube.

I attended the first semi-final at Wigmore Hall yesterday afternoon. Right from the start I was blown away by the Goldmund Quartet who opened the competition with Beethoven's Op.59 No. 2 in F minor. They opened with an unequivocal commitment, energy and drive that was arresting in the concert hall. And, now I come to watch it back on Facebook, I'm relieved I didn't imagine their prowess either. There is an undeniable drive to their playing. The second movement triggered the tear ducts yesterday – its done the same today. Based on the semi-finals my money's on them to win the £10K first prize. 

In this way, the Goldmund Quartet set the bar high for the first semi-final. Quartuor Tchalik who followed didn't seem able to reach the same emotional depths – the dynamic range was undoubtedly there, but some of the intensity was missing. The third movement cello pizzicato solo in Beethoven's Op.59 No. 1 certainly brought the group into the right groove, but even then I still wanted them to go further. Emotionally, I wanted to be put through the ringer, so to speak.

And having heard two performances of Beethoven's Op.132 in A minor, I think that both the Marmen Quartet who followed in the first semi-final and Quatuor Amabile who concluded the second semi, chose works with uncompromisingly demanding openings. In the case of the Marmen quartet it felt like there was some timidity at the start which made me feel uneasy; Quartuor Amabile pulled off a more convincing start in comparison. 

This isn't a foregone conclusion

That's not how the decision is necessarily made. As with each stage in this competition, I've been reminded about how something you think sounds amazing doesn't necessarily register with the jury. And, seeing as its live performance, just because a group blew you away one day, doesn't necessarily mean they'll do the same the following day. The final features new repertoire not previously heard at the competition – romantic repertoire throughout. So, it could be that another group shines brighter in the final this evening.

It's an addictive experience

That's one of the things that has pulled me into this competition a whole lot more deeply than I ever imagined it would. Having a range of performances and groups to compare and contrast makes for a far more immersive, and I'd also suggest addictive, concert experience. Hearing contrasting groups has helped me better understand playing practise, the impact chemistry (or a lack of it) has it on a performance, and it's resulted in me hearing a whole lot more chamber music by Beethoven in one day than I've heard in a long long time. 

Trust your listening instincts

I've also been reminded about how engaging with this art form is about learning to trust our own individual listening instincts. When I heard the Goldmund in the Wigmore I knew immediately I loved what I was hearing. But, as much as I love writing (loads of copy), I'm not sure I could exactly pinpoint the mechanics of that musical creation (probably a good thing for all concerned).

I assumed when I sat down to watch the second semi-final on YouTube that I'd struggle more to have an instinctive feel for who I connected with and who I didn't. But it didn't turn out to be that way. There is a feeling you get when something special is happening on stage whether you're there in person or watching online. I still find it difficult to explain, but its what I'm always looking for as a listener.

Nearly half as many more viewers on Facebook than YouTube

What really surprised was the number of people watching on Facebook rather than YouTube. I notice at the time of writing that there were over 1K viewers of the second semi-final on Facebook as opposed to approximately 600 on YouTube. My assumption was that more people would be watching on YouTube as the app offers more opportunity to cast to connected TVs. Inevitably, I'm now fascinated to know what the demographic is watching on Facebook. 

The finalists of the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition 2018 are:  The Goldmund Quartett, the Esmé Quartet, and the Viano Quartet. 

Watch the Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition final on Sunday 15 April from 6pm, streamed live on the Wigmore Hall YouTube channel or via the Wigmore's Facebook page. 

Catch-up on Semi-Final One and Semi-Final Two via the Wigmore Hall's Facebook page or via YouTube.

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.Me link.

2018 Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition semi-finals and final streamed live on YouTube

Dukes Hall, Royal Academy of Music. The location for the preliminary rounds of the competition. The semi-finals and the final are at Wigmore Hall, not the Royal Academy of Music. Just so we're clear. 

For thoughts on the first and second semi-finals plus the names of final quartets competing in the Wigmore Hall International String Quartets final on Sunday 15 April 2018 read this update where you'll also find links to the catch-up and live streams. 

The Wigmore Hall String Quartet competition got underway this week with a series of preliminary rounds at the Royal Academy of Music.

I intended to get along to all of the prelims, but for one reason or another wasn't able to. What I ended up hearing was unfamiliar music, and three new quartets I'd not heard before: the Eliot, Gildas, and Callisto string quartets.

None of those quartets made it through to the semi-finals. That says something about the impact my presence in the concert hall has on the chances of success for musicians in a competition. Pity the three quartets I'll watch at Wigmore Hall in this afternoon's semi-final. On that basis, it's probably best to put your money on the three quartets appearing in the second semi-final this evening that I'll be watching via the live stream on YouTube. Much safer for them, I'm sure.

Joking aside, I've really enjoyed the process of listening to the prelim rounds I've attended. It's a great way to hear unfamiliar repertoire. The atmosphere (for the audience at least) is relaxed, and once again, I've appreciated the way in which variety of playing styles between quartets heightens attentive listening.

I'm going to write a post collating my observations from the competition on Monday. But in the meantime what I've found really interesting is that my experience of competition isn't so much a sense that one quartet is better than the other, rather that as an audience member and auditorium pundit, I'm essentially pitting myself against the panel. Look how that turned out.

The semi-finalists are:  The Goldmund Quartett, the Marmen Quaret (recent winners of the Royal Over Seas League Ensemble final), the Quatuor Tchalik, the Esmé Quartet, the Quartet Amabile and the Viano Quartet 

The Wigmore Hall String Quartet Competition continues on Saturday 14 April at 2.00pm and 7.30pm, streamed live on the Wigmore Hall YouTube channel. The finalists are announced at approximately 10.30pm. The final is on Sunday 15 April at 7.30pm and is also streamed live.

Let’s not let go of St John’s Smith Square

News today that concert venue St John’s Smith Square is looking at empty reserves isn’t surprising – what with the Queen Elizabeth Hall re-opening this week and the partnership with SJSS that carried Southbank Centre through its 3 year refurbishment now being at an end. But, it is a sad thing to hear, nonetheless.

SJSS has a highly sought-after acoustic, and an effortless charm to its front of house experience that makes it a go-to destination. Also, Benjamin Britten’s mother got married there.

We think of venues as being in competition with one another. That’s usually where the argument about whether we need to save one begins and ends.

Yep, in some respects venues are in competition with one another. In other ways the range of buildings we have available to us, the people that staff them, and the atmosphere they create, affords us complimentary destinations. That’s important for audiences in search of differing experiences.

I adore SJSS’s simplicity. It is a meeting point too. Magical things happen there. It’s in need £200K. Let’s not let go of it. That would be too easy.

Review: The Moderate Soprano by David Hare at Duke of York’s Theatre, London

David Hare’s play The Moderate Soprano tells the story of the origins of Glyndebourne, dispelling the many myths that surround the iconic location.

It’s a haphazard story too – pre-war aspirations of a moneyed man who brings three refugees from Nazi Germany back to pre-war Britain to produce Glyndebourne’s first season. What they achieve is rescuing Britain’s operatic tradition (such as it was) from a reputational low, bringing to bear their considerable experience of the European tradition of opera. You know, introducing novel ideas like stage directors, the separation of art from business, and auditions for principal roles. 

In that way, the play shines a light on the beginnings of arts administration. The painful tussles and awkward indignance are nothing in comparison to the painful truth David Hare reveals in his narrative: England just wasn’t really very good at opera in the 1930s. There was very little tradition to speak warmly of.

That it took three refugees to introduce standard practice is something even the arts seems to have conveniently forgotten to make a big song and dance about (boom tish, etc). That Hare wrote the play before the outcome of the referendum makes the play topic, painful and lip-bitingly awkward.


Photos: Johan Perrson

Timelines intertwine with cracking jibes at the moneyed elite, their need to be seen to be patrons, and our ignorance about the art form, its exponents and its demands.

Hare makes us feel sorry for Christie and his wife, full of good intent and unrealistic expectations. Those individuals who bring Glyndebourne to life are given the respect they and others like them are long overdue. Our cultural identity is down to those who found sanctuary here. And after that they went on to establish other institutions, like the Edinburgh Festival – was that point ever made clear during the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh International Festival last year? Not that I recall. 

The play is a great signpost for UK cultural history too, contextualising private patronage alongside post-war publically-funded arts provision. It reminds us of the many things we take for granted. That Hare's play is hosted at the Duke of York's Theatre across the road from one of those Arts Council funded institutions – English National Opera – its difficult not to see The Moderate Soprano as a lesson in arts management history.

Roger Allam shines effortlessly in the role of Glyndebourne founder John Christie. Nancy Caroll switches from the 1930s to her dying days 20 years later with ease, striding about the stage with wit, resolve, and empathy when the need arises. Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Rudolf Bing cuts a dashing handsome figure, with a clipped Austrian accent to match. Jane Smith, Paul Jesson and Anthony Calf completes what is an extremely hard-working ensemble put under considerable demands. The last scene lingers a little. The concluding vignette feels a little tacked on the end. 

If you're interested in or work in arts administration you must go and see this. If you're interested in opera then you must go and see it. And if you're in any way bothered by the lies and deceit put out before, during and still after the referendum then you should go and see it as well. 

David Hare's The Moderate Soprano runs from 6 April – 20 June

The Thoroughly Good Blog is an independent blog celebrating classical music and the arts. Please consider supporting its development in 2018 by giving a donation using this PayPal.Me link.