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Artist Interview: Hélène Clément, viola

By Patrick Burke on April 1, 2016
Doric Quartet

Joining us on April 5, the Doric String Quartet is described by the Yorkshire Post as "today’s finest UK Quartet at a time when we are inundated with brilliant young ensembles."  I spoke with violist (and Marlboro Music alumna) Hélène Clément about the group's recording schedule, their work with composer John Adams, and their upcoming PCMS debut.

Patrick Burke: I think it is safe to say that the Quartet does not shy away from the recording studio. In the last 12 months you have released recordings of music by Janáček and Martinů, Brett Dean, and the second volume of the group’s Haydn quartet series.  Could you tell us how the Quartet approaches the recording process, and can you tell us what the group has is store for your next release?

Hélène Clément: You are correct in this observation! Recording has become an important strand to our work. We have found that being in the studio has been a very inspiring experience. We tend to prepare very meticulously for the sessions, as we do for an important concert, then we try and perform as in a concert during the recording so it sounds as close to a live experience as possible. We also use the luxury of being able to listen to ourselves on high quality equipment during the recording to really push our interpretations so that they are really vivid – searching for dynamic and emotional contrasts. We really want the music to jump out and be as vital to the listener as it is to us! Our next plan is to record Schubert G Major and Quartettsatz in May; in September we will record the Elgar Introduction and Allegro with the BBC Symphony; and next year we continue our Haydn cycle with the opus 64 quartets.

PB: Your April 5th performance with PCMS concludes with the Schubert Quartet in G Major. Could you tell us more about the work, and how did you come to pair this with the Haydn and Janáček?

HC: I think it is safe to say that the Schubert G is really one of the pinnacles of the quartet repertoire, if not of all music. Its timeless grandeur, astonishing economy of means and epic length are so humbling. The work focuses on the simplest of musical contrasts – minor key versus major key – and, through the sheer size of the quartet, reveals this to us as a battle between life and death, culminating in the whirlwind tarantella that is relentless until its final outcome.

PB: The Quartet recently performed John Adams’ Absolute Jest, a work written for String Quartet and Orchestra, under Mr. Adams with the Vienna Symphony. How did this project come together, and what was the collaborative process like working with Mr. Adams? Additionally, what are the difficulties of adding a chamber group to a full orchestra?

HC: This project was an incredibly exciting one for the quartet. We heard about the premiere of this work (in 2011), listened to it and thought it would be an interesting project for us to embark on. One of our managers was in touch with John Adams about us playing it and he agreed to this. We have performed the work many times with different orchestras and conductors and hugely enjoy being in a different working environment from our usual, small private quartet world! It was thrilling to work with John on the piece and we were very struck by his overwhelming rhythmic intensity of his conducting. There are difficulties with the combination of quartet and orchestra. In this piece, John asks that the quartet be slightly amplified to assist us. Sometimes the quartet is playing alone which is fine but at other moments we are incorporated in the full texture, and the orchestra is huge in this piece!

PB: Lastly, our audience is always interested in the instruments that our artists play on. Could you tell us about your instruments?

Alex [Redington] plays on a Carlo Tononi violin from 1708 which has a wonderfully sweet sound and a deep richness in the lower strings. Jonny [Stone] plays on a Brothers Rafaello & Antonio Gagliano violin from 1830. He fell in love with the instrument and in particular its very powerful lower registers, which is very important for the role of 2nd violin. I play on a Stephan von Baehr viola made in 2008 in Paris – it has a very distinctive sound and is very light (not heavy – which can be a problem for violas). And  John [Myerscough] plays on a Haat-Hedlef Uilderks cello made in Lübeck (north Germany) in 2005 – he was looking to commission a modern instrument and this maker was recommended to him. The cello has a very even tone and a very powerful bass. It also has a wide range of colors and is an amazing cello as a modern instrument. People are often very surprised that it is so new!

The Doric Quartet performs on Tuesday, April 5 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theatert. For tickets and information, visit the concert page.

For more information on the Doric Quartet, visit their website.