Opening on a high note

Polish quartet to launch West Cork Chamber Music Festival, Nicki ffrench Davis reports

Apollon Musagete Quartet, whose first performance in Bantry is on June 29.

THE first notes of the 17th West Cork Chamber Music Festival will be played on Friday, June 29 by Pawel Zalejski, first violinist with the Apollon Musagète Quartet. The notes will be those that open Szymanowski’s String Quartet No 1.

The Apollon Musagète Quartet will also perform throughout the nine days of the festival. Bantry might even hope for an impromptu session or two — the group have plenty of music of their own, and also have three months high profile touring with singer-songsmith Tori Amos under their belts.

“Are we really opening the whole festival?” Zalejski asks. “I couldn’t imagine a better opening. The String Quartet No1 starts from nothing but a single note on the first violin, just developing. It takes you up a mountain into a fog which is slowly clearing.

“When it clears you have the whole picture and the music has a folksy character, expressionist and impressionist, somewhere between Debussy and Richard Strauss. It’s very compact, it has only three movements because the October Revolution of 1917 prevented Szymanowski from writing a fourth. It’s one of our favourites.”

In six years, the Apollon Musagète Quartet has become a veritable music institution, doubling as a composers’ group that publishes, records and broadcasts music. “We also run a festival, masterclasses and courses. We put everything in one basket. The quartet is a medium to make our dreams come true,” Zalejski says.

All members of the quartet are Polish and they are currently based in Germany. “We travel so much that it is logistically better for us than Vienna, where we started,” says Zalejski. It was unusual to find four Polish male musicians in Vienna. “It certainly makes the communication process easier, although we use all languages to describe music, as far as you can talk about music. We use English, Italian and German, as well as Polish.”

Less and less the quartet find the need to speak at all. “We communicate more and more with playing and non-verbal communication. We are four strong individuals but we look in the same direction and we can communicate with the language of music, even more than with Polish.

“Just looking at the score is the most important place where we start any new piece, not just our own voice but how all the instruments fit in. We un-code it and prepare everything individually until it’s very clear. Then rehearsing is finding a way together.”

Most of the time, Zalejski says, the four start out with very different ideas. “We don’t make the decision-making democratically or have one person deciding either – it has to be 100% agreement, we want all four of us behind every note. It has a lot to do with social skills and you need to be flexible and able to change your ideas, not only force your opinion.”

On Friday, July 6, Bantry offers the quartet its first opportunity to perform with Polish pianist Ewa Kupiec, another exciting musician at this year’s festival. They will play a quintet by their compatriot Grazyna Bacewicz. “In my opinion, Bacewicz is the best woman 20th century composer who is not living,” Zalejski says. “She has got some attention recently with her music being published and recorded but she is not famous because of the political history.

“Bacewicz’s music is nothing to do with avant garde,” he says. “It’s neo-classical, with a Polish folk touch, sometimes jazzy with ragtime colour but also archaic chorales. What I really like about her is how she’s bringing in everything from before her, and her own time, while also adding something very personal.”

The quartet has played in Ireland several times, but this will be their first visit to Cork. Their last visit to the island, with Tori Amos at Belfast’s Waterfront Theatre, was part of the international tour. “We had done tours before but for us, this was on a huge scale,” says Zalejski. “It’s interesting, it became very classical, like a piano quintet with a singer performing a song cycle. I would not call it crossover, Tori moved much more in our direction.

“It was risky to play pop without bass and drums but it worked really well. Even to experience the Tori fans — the live reaction was, how shall I say, very passionate. We had composed one instrumental piece where the attention was only on us and they were still really getting crazy. If you compare the audience to a classical one it was more like a Beatles concert. There was this spontaneous positive energy.”

That kind of energy is something familiar to classical music fans who return year after year to the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, and the quartet can expect an equally enthusiastic and appreciative audience.

* www.westcorkmusic.ie

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