10 observations from the first Royal Over-Seas League Ensemble Final

For all my pissing and moaning about list-writing, it actually turns out to be quite a useful format. Who knew? Buzzfeed.

The first ensemble final at the Royal Over-Seas League (last night) was as compelling a listen as the keyboard final last week.

Here are ten thoughts arising.

1. Keep a close eye on the cello and the viola

Obviously, everyone’s important in a string quartet. But if you’re looking for a signpost, the good ones have a strong reliable cello backed up by a spirited hungry viola – the foundations.

2. Ravel’s chamber music is where the composer really excels

Forget Bolero. It’s bollocks. Don’t get me wrong, it’s entertaining. It’s also an exercise. Ravel’s string quartet is the composer at his best. I heard it first during my A-Level studies and have heard it on a handful of times since. God only knows why broadcasters don’t go near it. It’s accessible, delectable, and seductive. The Marmen Quartet’s performance of the first movement had the edge tonight.

3. Where is the mainstream press?

I spent lunchtime listening to some members of the mainstream classical music press decry the ‘collapse’ of classical music criticism. But none of them was present at Royal Overseas League’s competition semi-final. God only knows why. What you see on stage is the next generation of talent committing to punishing criteria, striving to reach their aspirations, stretching beyond. Why wouldn’t you want to use your considerable influence to support, congratulate and elevate the next wave of professional musicians?

On second thoughts, don’t let on. I don’t want everyone writing about this.

4. Quit clarifying what you do and don’t think you know about classical music

Directly after the last quartet played, I had a bit of a chinwag with the lady sat next to me. I asked her if she had a vested interest. She said she didn’t. She asked me who I thought would get the prize. Before I answered she followed up with, “I should explain I don’t know anything about classical music.” I challenged her. “But you have a view on who should win,” I said, “I can tell.” She concurred, explaining that she didn’t think her view was necessarily valid because she didn’t feel she knew enough.

I reassured her that all that was necessary was what she thought in the moment. It turned out we agreed on who should win. It later turned out that who we thought should win didn’t end up winning. Tsk.

5. Quartets can be quite seductive

I’m not being filthy or suggestive or trying to subtly make out that someone on stage was easy on the eye. That would be crass and wholly inappropriate. In our ever-increasingly superficial age fuelled by objectification, it’s rather appealing – perhaps even old-school – to witness four musicians working together to create one collective voice. When you’re sat there listening to people you don’t know play music you’re unfamiliar with and you’re thinking you just want to leap up on stage and hug the lot of them, you know they’ve done something special and touched you emotionally in a way you rarely experience.

The Zelkova Quartet have this licked.

I didn’t get up and hug them all. That would have been weird.

6. Debussy in his early years was massively deceptive

I think of Debussy as all pastel watercolours, willow trees, and running water. His first string quartet in G Minor played by the Zelkova Quartet sounded far more like Beethoven, and maybe even Mozart that a sound I immediately associate with the French impressionist composer.

7. Haydn demands the narrative is made clear

I write that sub-header like it’s a statement of fact. It’s not. Or at least if it is, I haven’t actually read it anywhere. But listening to the Eusebius Quartet’s playing the first movement from Haydn’s String Quartet No. 64 in D Major that clarity is everything.

Let the narrative get lost in technique, or dynamics, or the overall balance and suddenly the focus is lost. Without the necessary clarity, Haydn can sound like he’s rambling a bit.

What’s important for me listening Haydn’s music is being able to hear the mechanics of the musical development because that’s exactly where the joy can be found in the art of the composer – the way they construct musical arguments.

8. ROSL is addictive … it’s also punishing

Royal Over-Seas League events are addictive for the audience. They’re also really efficient ways of being exposed to a range of repertoire. In the first ensemble semi-final, we heard works by Peter Maxwell-Davies, Ravel, Debussy, Haydn, Bartok and Mendelssohn. That is quite some range of repertoire. Where ROSL especially benefits the audience is its intimate setting devoid of pretension. That means you’ll hear it as the composer hears it when writing: as intensely intimate music.

The addictive part of the listening experience is hearing a range of performers who are competing with one another. Competition makes for a more involving experience on the audience’s part. With something to compare against, the listening experience is more active. Time passes quickly.

But it’s also a punishing experience. Last night I discovered that the second round (from which tonight’s four quartets were selected) was held the night before. Each quartet was allowed to carry one work they’d previously performed in the competition through to the semi-final. They were required to complement their work with a work they knew but hadn’t played to the judges before. That puts enormous pressure on the performers. That’s one of the reasons why the competition is so absorbing. But it’s also a necessarily punishing ask on the part of the artist. Good. I like it that way around.

9. Radio 3’s In Tune is no longer a badge of honour

I’ve lost count of the number of biographies I’ve read that reference an artist’s appearance on BBC Radio 3’s drivetime show. Sure, it’s a big deal for them. An invitation to perform is effectively an endorsement by a brand respected by those in the performing world. But when everyone mentions it in their biographies then they are devaluing themselves. And with Classic FM committing their digital resources to showcasing new talent, I’d quite like to see them mentioned in biographies too.

10. Tuesday nights are a good night for a concert

So many concerts I see advertised that I might want to go to are programmed on days when I would prefer to be at home. Tuesday nights are a good night, similarly Wednesday or Thursday. Anything else is home time. Nesting.

The Marmen Quartet won the first of two Royal Over-Seas League ensemble finals on Tuesday evening. The competition continues on Tuesday 20 March at the Royal Over-Seas League in London. 

The Royal Over-Seas League Final is on Thursday 4 June at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Book tickets via the Southbank Centre website.

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