Flinders Quartet is immediately recognisable as Melbourne’s string quartet. It is an internationally respected force in chamber music, championing contemporary relevance and art-form regeneration. Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2020, Flinders Quartet inspires a love of string quartet music through masterful live performances. Founding cellist and artistic spokesperson Zoe Knighton reflects on 20 years of Flinders Quartet.
I was completing my Master of Music degree at The University of Melbourne in 2000 and had to do a chamber music component in June of that year. In May, Bill Hennessy’s advice to my procrastination in putting together a group was, ‘For goodness’ sake Zoe. Just find three friends and the worst that will happen is that you will have a good time.’
What emerged from those early rehearsals was somewhat of an addiction. Bill introduced us to the sensuous sound of our four instruments blending and creating a new instrument. I remember the exact moment (in Haydn’s String Quartet Op.64 No.4, 1st movement) where I experienced that for the first time. Bill told us to listen to the collective sound between my cello and Helen’s viola rather than focus on myself. It was a complete revelation. As my addiction took hold, it became apparent that it would never quite be satiated. There would always be a slightly different combination of sounds with which to experiment and a never-ending library of scores to discover.
Fast forward 20 years and the string quartet still holds the same magic for us. We are still constantly listening to the fifth member of the quartet (which is the sum total of our sounds), getting bowled over by just how brilliant Beethoven is (it doesn’t seem right to say ‘was’ - his music keeps him alive for me), and finding that string quartets hold as much of an allure as they ever did.
Since 2000, we have developed a genuine love for working with composers and one of my most cherished memories is working with the late Peter Sculthorpe on his 18th string quartet. Some composers we have worked with on a number of occasions: Elena Kats-Chernin, Stuart Greenbaum and Calvin Bowman, and they have become great friends. (It’s always heartwarming to receive a little melody written with you in mind - the best gift ever.) To enable the next generation of string quartet composition, we launched Flinders Quartet’s Composer Development Program. From this we have premiered 25 new works and built some strong relationships.
What began as four friends trying to choose a name while looking out over Flinders Street Station is now a thriving small arts organisation with a board led by Julian Burnside AO QC. The sheer amount of possibilities for a string quartet and the places it can go has us (very happily) run off our feet. Most recently, we celebrated two years as Artistic Patrons of John Noble’s Quartet Program, which has us coaching and performing with five regional ensembles. The culminating concert in the Primrose Potter Salon brought the house down with its energy and enthusiasm for chamber music.
We thought long and hard about how we wanted to celebrate 20 years and decided to celebrate along with Beethoven’s 250th. For all of us it was a no brainer because if we were only allowed to play one composer for the rest of our lives, it would be him and the Prince Gilitzen quartets of Op. 130, 131 and 132 are without peer in the string quartet canon. Having said that, I think the piece I am most looking forward to getting to know in 2020 is the new work we have commissioned from Yorta Yorta woman, Deborah Cheetham AO. She has just told us that it will bear the title ‘Bungaree’ after the first Australian to circumnavigate the country and much less well known than our own namesake, Matthew Flinders. We can’t wait!
The most wonderful element of being in a string quartet is that our work is never done. The string quartet canon is ridiculously well served with masterpiece after piece; and then there are all the other masterpieces that are yet to be written.