Conservatorium Theatre (Grainger Quartet)


Professional production

Performers: Natsuko Yoshimoto – Violin 1, James Cuddeford – Violin 2, Jeremy Williams – Viola, Patrick Murphy – Cello

Genesis: a new beginning. The program title relates to the formation of a string quartet that shows rich promise of injecting fresh life into Australia’s music scene. In this game of musical chairs, three of the members of the new Grainger Quartet evolved from the Australian String Quartet. The former Australian String Quartet members were based in Adelaide, birthplace of Percy Grainger; this new Grainger Quartet gravitates for their national and international tours from the more cosmopolitan Sydney.

A driving force of the quartet, James Cuddeford, is Brisbane born and raised, a credit to Queensland’s Education Department policy of making instrumental music studies accessible to all and sundry, regardless of background. With non-musical but supportive parents, young James was given a violin and showed such promise that the teacher recommended individual tuition to supplement the school’s classes. James flourished under the guidance of Dr. Tony Doheny at the Queensland Conservatorium, then studied at the Yehudi Menuhin School, where he met his future wife, Yoshimoto, and at the Royal Northern College of Music. (His sister Tara proved a similarly talented cellist, following him to the Yehudi Menuhin School and eventually becoming a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.) Congratulations to state governments of yesteryear who founded the country’s premier music education program. Without this primary school opportunity, the lanky and likeable James might have become a public servant instead of a prize-winning international artist now giving Australian and international audiences pleasure through his sensitive and yet strong musicianship. Memo to present governments who consider penny-pinching from the arts and education budgets: such a success story warrants pouring yet more tax payers’ dollars into the arts; rather than squeeze funding, it should be multiplied.

Yoshimoto and Cuddeford go back a long way to their studies at the Yehudi Menuhin School and a delight of the concert is hearing them speak as one, meshing tone and sensitive phrasing, their bow changes almost imperceptible. Both violinists are such strong performers that the lower strings rather pale beneath their vitality; the violist and cellist, though fine players, could have projected with more flair, though overall the balance was good. These musicians are highly professional and brilliant players and the quartet performed with impeccable tuning, especially in the upper strings.

The program opened with the vitality and wide dynamic range of the Barber String Quartet Opus 11, with its delicious floating Adagio, made popular as the theme music from the films Platoon and Elephant Man. They projected the contrasting moods and timbres from tempestuous to heart-felt lyricism with subtlety and deliciously romantic tone. This was followed by Beethoven’s “Harp” quartet, Opus 74, so called because the pizzicato passages pass between instruments as facilely as a sweep of hands across harp strings. The expansive broad phrasing and subtle textures were effectively portrayed with fine detail and rich timbres. However, the Brahms Quartet in A minor, Opus 51 No. 2, occasionally lost momentum and concentration. The viola needed more fire to match the resonance of the upper strings. Perhaps a radical concept might be to seat the violins opposite each other because second violinist James Cuddeford’s huge sound resonates with such impact.

As was fitting, Grainger played Grainger; this oddly titled Arrival Platform Humlet. I confess the meaning still escapes me, in spite of an introduction by James Cuddeford who arranged it for string quartet from a score for solo viola or massed violas. This piece was too short to be engrossing but filled out the program with some charm and vitality. It would have made a better encore – the half-capacity but proud audience clapped enthusiastically but to no avail – after the inclusion of a more cutting edge, contemporary work. This would have made a positive statement from a young, fresh ensemble.

The “Genesis” program has performed in Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne and aired on ABC radio so the country at large could enjoy the benefits of a state government’s investment in Australia’s musical talent. This delightful evening’s thoroughly enjoyable initial program bodes well for the future of the Grainger Quartet.

Played in Brisbane Saturday 24 March

Duration: 120 minutes, 20-minute interval

— Ruth Bonetti
(Performance seen: Fri 23rd March 2007)