As the Vanbrugh Quartet get a lifetime achievement award, Gregory Ellis reflects on his 30 years with the group, writes Cathy Desmond

IT IS 30 years since four rising stars left the bright lights of London to settle in Cork.

As students, the Vanbrugh Quartet answered an advertisement for the position of RTÉ quartet-in-residence. They have survived periods of turbulence and worked tirelessly over three decades to enrich the local and national classical music scene and forged a highly respected international career.

They have given more than a thousand performances throughout Ireland, made numerous acclaimed recordings, and co-founded the West Cork Chamber Music Festival.

The announcement that founding leader Gregory Ellis will retire at the end of the season has prompted moves to mark their contribution to musical life in Ireland. Meanwhile, the other three members of the quartet will continue on with various projects.

The ensemble will be the fifth recipient of a National Concert Hall Lifetime Achievement Award at a gala concert on Sunday when the quartet will be joined by distinguished guests and rising stars.

First impressions of Ireland

“We were concerned that we were going far from the hub to the very edge of Europe — in more ways than one, but were also aware that an excellent Romanian quartet had held the position there for a number of years. However, one of our first concerts, in Westport House, soon removed any notions that audiences here were any less sophisticated. Cork itself was naturally enthusiastic about the new young quartet and people like Prof Fleischman and Dr Spratt bent over backwards to make sure we were welcomed. We were puzzled why Dublin audiences seemed so small. That changed over the years though.”

Most memorable performance

“That’s a tough one as I don’t dwell on past performances. The concerts in Bantry (West Cork Chamber Music Festival) stand out: The intensity of the experience — recording to 60m people on a live EBU broadcast in a really ‘dry’ acoustic with an attentive audience and brilliant colleagues from various parts of the world — all at the top of their game.”

Favourite overseas festival

“Kohmo (Finland) was brilliant — all the artists were lent bicycles (including cellists), great parties under the midnight sun. I remember discussing bowing technique with Thomas Zehetmair in a sauna after he’d just played all 24 of Paganini’s caprices in a single concert, and the really crazy enthusiasm of the audiences there.”

Scariest moment

“Trying to get through Moscow border patrol — waiting more than two hours as the guards suspiciously handled and photographed our instruments. Apparently some of their valuable old Italian instruments had walked during glasnost. After that getting into the Kremlin for the concert was a snip.”

Favourite repertoire

“That’s easy the Beethoven quartets. They never get old after 30 years and more studying these, there is still more to learn.”

The toughest times

“Probably that first period in 1990 [RTE contract cut by 60%) — it was kind of traumatic as we had upped sticks and bought houses, but through the course of the successful campaign led by Geoff Spratt we realised the residency was much more than just the Vanbrugh, and we were humbled by the depth of feeling the people of Cork showed when it came to defending their quartet. It’s mindful of this fact that we have launched the National String Quartet Foundation with just incredible support from several friends, in particular UCC, which, by the way, saved our bacon in 1990.”

[On the termination of their RTÉ contract in 2013] “We weren’t shocked: The writing had been on the wall for more than a decade; at each contract renewal we were squeezed tighter.”

What next?

“I’m committing full-time attention to my students in the Cork School of Music. There is a superb nurturing of talent there from primary through fourth-level education. Oh and I really hope to become a wonderful gardener — quartet concerts always disrupted that.”


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