Consonant Conversation: An interview with the Consone Quartet

Consonant Conversation: An interview with the Consone Quartet

Can you tell us a little about what you do?

We are a string quartet exploring music mostly from the late 18th and early 19th centuries (although we have been known to dabble in the odd piece by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies!) We play on gut strings and use bows of the period.

How did you choose your name?

It was very hard to choose a name for the group as so many of the ones we liked already existed in some form or another. ‘Consone’ derives from the Latin word ‘consonus’, meaning harmonious, or sounding together. That is what we strive to be!

The remit of historically informed performance has gradually increased more and more to embrace post-baroque music. What do you think are the challenges of engaging with the historical performance of music from the ‘classical’ period as opposed to with earlier repertories?

We are lucky that there is such an incredible wealth of repertoire for the string quartet, though it of course comes with great responsibility and a competitive market. It is rare to find modern groups performing baroque repertoire any longer, since groups specialising in historical performance have brought such a particular sound, spirit and liveliness to the music. Having said this, as a period instrument string quartet performing later repertoire, we constantly find ourselves being compared to modern quartets. It is impossible to ignore the way in which the string quartet has developed during the last two centuries. It has resulted in a genre so refined and polished that it is a challenge to bring something new and interesting to it, yet groups are doing so all the time, even in the modern world – redefining how a string quartet and its members function both individually within the group, and together as a whole. It is the greatest challenge and also the greatest joy for us to explore modern aesthetics and discover historical performance practices to really try to understand the language of the music. Our tools (gut strings and classical bows) are our secret weapons – they teach us all we need to know about how this music might have sounded.

You’ve had fantastic success in competitions like the Royal Overseas League and have been achieving great things on the EEEmerging scheme – congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about the schemes and opportunities out there for young period ensembles, and how they have helped you?

We felt very fortunate to be awarded a place on the EEEmerging Scheme following our performance in the final round of the York Early Music Festival International Young Artists Competition. The Scheme has given us opportunities to perform outside the UK and make contacts/form relationships with wonderful musicians and early music centres on the continent. The scheme is hot on training its young groups in the art of ensemble management and we have learnt a lot about how to run our group and what is expected of young ensembles in the profession. This is something that perhaps gets slightly overlooked at music colleges and universities. EEEmerging also organise residencies, which happen twice a year in various centres across Europe, giving us the time and space away from the hustle and bustle of London to really focus.  

Another brilliant scheme that we have taken part in recently is the Brighton Early Music Live! Scheme which as well giving performance opportunities and offering management training, encourages outreach and educational work and gives very good advice about applying for grants and funding.

How do you choose repertoire?

Choosing repertoire is one of the best things about being in an ensemble and the string quartet repertoire is just so vast and fascinating. What is sometimes more challenging is programming – trying to shoehorn all the repertoire we love into a programme that is both interesting and works in terms of timings and keys. Finding a link between pieces, or an interesting narrative, is always an exciting challenge too.

We all listen to lots of repertoire and when we have the luxury of time, we love to meet up to sightread the quartets we have shortlisted. We like to combine pieces that we all know and love with more obscure works by lesser-known composers and we tend to select pieces with rich colour palettes, well suited to the sound world of gut strings.

We have actually recently initiated a new ‘exercise’ where we set ourselves a deadline and each member of the group brings two programme proposals to the table. This way we can make sure we all get to play the repertoire we are enthusiastic about and we can develop interesting projects together.

Can you tell us about future projects you are currently working on?

We are passionate Franz Schubert fans and somewhere down the line there is a big Schubert cycle brewing.  We also have an exciting trip to Bolivia coming up with a fugue inspired programme. We love working with our amazing colleagues and we are looking forward to collaborations with the Hanover Band and the Fitzwilliam String Quartet. We are constantly trying to expand our repertoire and push in the direction of the mid-nineteenth century too! At the moment we are preparing for our first CD recording in early April, to be released on the Ambronay Label in the autumn of 2018. As a follow up, we are planning a tour of the north of England and Scotland in early 2019 to promote the disc.

What are some of the challenges facing young ensembles who specialise in period ensembles today?

Some early music festivals consider us too ‘late’ for their agenda while some of the regular music festivals label us as slightly too ‘specialised’, so it takes some balancing ☺

I’m aware this is a bit of a minefield...could we have a short definition of what ‘historical performance’ means to each of the four of you?

Agata: Historical performance for me means curiosity and exploration. I don’t want to draw lines when talking about music from different periods. Music is music after all - ever changing - and it gives us all a chance to choose how much we delve into the history and stylistics of it. 

Magdalena: For me, historical performance is about exploration, imagination and possibility. It is about balancing an honest interpretation of the score and the composer’s wishes, with the expectations and tastes of today’s audiences.

Elitsa: I guess it means thinking outside the box that musicians are put in. There are certain ways in which musicians are trained and therefore used to doing things, which in many ways can limit one’s imagination. I suppose for me historical performance is the balance of being curious to learn and free to experiment whilst being true to what we see in the score to the best of our knowledge.

George: To me, historical performance means understanding the language of the music you’re performing, whatever the period. Often this involves a depth of imagination and willingness to let your mind travel back in time. We live in such a different world to one in which any of the music we perform was written, and so I’d say that to be questioning and open to ideas are important characteristics to have as someone entering into the historical performance world.

Which string quartets do you listen to, and who inspires you the most musically?

We have been very lucky to receive coaching from some musicians who truly inspire us - Lucy Russell, Kati Debretzeni, Richard Lester, Alasdair Beatson, Richard Ireland - the list is long and we would never be able to mention everyone. Ever since we formed our group in late 2012, Quatuor Mosaïques have been a huge inspiration for us. There is something so fresh about their recordings. They come across to the listener as though they are live performances. The London Haydn Quartet have brought dynamism, sparkle and depth to the their vast output of Haydn quartet recordings which speak so clearly of his style and its underlying youthfulness.

Finally, if you all had to change instruments, what would you each play and why?

Agata: I would probably take up the viola da gamba. That sound world fascinates me!

Magdalena: For me it would have to be either the cello or the french horn. I absolutely love the sound of the French horn, and I could never tire of the cello repertoire.

Elitsa: At the age of 12 or 13 I decided to take up an instrument, and it was difficult to choose between viola and double bass, so for that reason I have often wondered what life would have been like as a bassist. But also I secretly I dream of playing the clarinet because I love the sound… almost as much as I love the sound of the viola!

George: I would probably choose another bass-line instrument like the bassoon or the double bass, although I wouldn’t fancy having to cart that around every day! I have a friend who plays both bassoon and cello professionally and I find myself increasingly jealous of his skills, and so for this reason I would have to say – the bassoon.

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Winners of the 2016 Royal Over-Seas League Strings/Keyboard Ensemble Prize, London based Consone Quartet is dedicated to exploring and recreating the sound-worlds of the Classical and early Romantic string quartet repertoire through period instrument performance. The quartet's success at the finals of the 2015 York Early Music International Young Artists Competition brought them the EUBO Development Trust prize and a place on the prestigious Eeemerging Scheme (Emerging European Ensembles), which supports young early music ensembles within the framework of the Creative Europe programme. Currently in the third year of EEEmerging, the group has performed at the 2015 REMA showcase in Prague, at the Buxton and Brighton Festivals, at the York Early Music Festival, AMUZ in Belgium, the Ambronay Festival in France and Ghislieri Musica in Pavia, Italy. Consone will be returning to Ambronay for a residency and to record their first CD in April 2018. Consone has collaborated with members of the Hanover Band, the Fitzwilliam String Quartet, clarinettists Jane Booth and Vlad Weverbergh, soprano Gillian Keith and Ashley Solomon and Colin Lawson for several performances in Vienna. Other past performances include the Wigmore Hall, Lake District Summer Music, Cadogan Hall, the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace and Bulgaria Chamber Hall in Sofia. The quartet has participated in master classes with Robert Cohen, Lucy Russell, Catherine Martin, Jean Patterson, Kati Debretzeni, Girolamo Bottiglieri and members of Ironwood (Australia), as well as Richard Ireland, Richard Lester and Alasdair Beatson (as part of Chamber Studio). Last year the group was selected for the Brighton Early Music Live! Scheme and they returned to BREMF in October 2017 to present a lunchtime programme themed around the origins of the string quartet. Future engagements include concerts at Chelsea Arts Club in London, the Holywell Music Room in Oxford and festivals in France, Switzerland and Bolivia.

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