Catching up with the Partridge String Quartet
It's been a big year for Melbourne's Partridge String Quartet. In 2020, they were announced as part of the third iteration of Musica Viva’s acclaimed leadership initiative, FutureMakers - a program designed to discover brilliant early career artists destined to be the musical leaders of tomorrow, providing them with the support to continue to grow and evolve as musicians.
We are thrilled to reveal the quartet, made up of Eunise Cheng, Mana Ohashi, Daniel Smith and William Huxtable will be extening their FutureMakers experience with Musica Viva. We sat down with the ensemble to learn more about the program and what they have experienced thus far, the differences in performing solo and as a quartet, their beginnigns as musicians, and much more.
What inspired each of you to pick up your instrument, and why have you continued to play it to this day?
William: For me it was my mum who put a violin in my hands at a very young age and began taking me to Suzuki violin lessons. From that point on as I feel it would be for many other musicians, years and years of lessons, performances and concerts have instilled in me a great love of classical music and the violin. This feeling along with many wonderful experiences with great teachers and colleagues have made me realise music will always be a part of my life.
Mana: Growing up, I was lucky to have had many hobbies. However, the sound of the violin was always around as my older sister had already begun to play when I was born. I began learning too, in a loving and nurturing environment from which I was able to associate violin playing and music with friendships and something that was to be shared. As the years have gone by, the violin has become not only an instrument I play, but somewhat of a constant companion that is always there for me and bears witness to all the many highs and lows this life has to offer. Playing the violin has opened up the opportunity for me to actively access and give access to music and has of course facilitated so many beautiful life-changing, life-affirming experiences and encounters which make every tough time worth it…enough to make me want to do this for my whole life!
Eunise: I was quite fortunate to grow up in a musical family so music naturally became a large part of my life as I would go to violin and piano lessons or orchestra with my siblings, make friends and play duets with many of my mum’s piano students who would come into our house every day or watch my grandpa as he would give music lectures over Skype (back before Zoom existed!) to his students around the world.
I really enjoyed playing on violin and piano which I started when I was 4, but it was when one of my high school teachers asked me if I would be interested to pick up the viola for a fun temporary challenge (due to a shortage of violists in high school orchestra) that everything changed for me, and I never looked back! While it started as pure curiosity to try something new, I ended up in love with the viola’s incredible tonal range and unique versatility in chamber music as well as a solo instrument itself. While the viola holds a general modest reputation, I am constantly surprised how the opposite is true with plenty of limitless possibilities to explore which is what excites and drives me as a musician today.
Daniel: When I was eight years old, my wonderful violinist-parents thought it would be nice if I picked up an instrument as an extracurricular activity, so we went to the instrument shop and I tried holding a violin. I remember my Mum commented on how it didn’t suit me at all; but a contributing factor may have been my attention already wandering to the corner of the room where the ‘big, cool ones’ were, hence the Cello (Mum drew the line at Double Bass due to travel…)
Playing music has been such an integral part of my life for so long that it’s difficult to pinpoint specific reasons I decided to pursue it; but the feeling of performing with other fantastic musicians, discovering music you didn’t know about, and socialising with people with a shared investment into something you’re obsessed with. It’s sometimes a tricky gig being a Muso, but if you work really hard and you’re really lucky the payoff is 100% worth it.
From being a soloist to joining an orchestra or a smaller ensemble, there are so many ways in which you can perform classical music. What makes being in a string quartet so special?
Mana: Firstly, the music written for string quartet is simply phenomenal and it’s easy to see that many composers relished in writing for this instrumentation, an amalgamation of voices that can deliver both intense lushness and the most subtle fragility. I find that the sheer scope of emotion that can be felt or portrayed when playing and listening to string quartets makes it a very ‘human’ experience and sharing this with like minded musicians is immensely fulfilling.
Playing in a SQ means working in a very personal and close way, where we are autonomous yet somehow selfless and constantly needing to be able to switch hats in the process of nearing a common goal. This is challenging but also very fun and the infinitely explorable quality of string quartet playing means we are never bored. The special bond created between a quartet is also unlike any other and I have shared unforgettable moments both on and off stage with Will, Eunise and Dan which have really formed the musician and person I currently am.
Eunise: As Mana mentions, there is something incredible which we all connect with in the genre itself as well as being a chamber musician. With 13 months passing since we’ve been together due to all the border chaos and lockdowns, it is something that I have been thinking about a lot. There are so many incredible individual chamber musicians that we can play with at any time, why do we love and care about the quartet itself so much and think of it so differently? Also, while the string quartet genre itself is amazing, why can’t we just play the same repertoire with different string players? Especially when something as simple as getting the four of us into the same country, same city and same room physically is one of the hardest challenges we’re facing.
Prior to last year, I found this really difficult to explain. Over the last six months, I’d been playing with many different combinations of instruments and got to play with some absolutely phenomenal musicians which was definitely something I absolutely loved. Dan and I also together started collaborating with members from the Penny Quartet who are also geographically challenged like us. It was cathartic to make music together and support each other as we could understand firsthand what each other was going through with constant member replacements and an entire year of concerts and tours wiped out. A majority of the time, our conversations would end up being about our quartet itself and our members and we’d lament how much we missed them. It was through this that I felt able to explain it quite simply- it’s like being on a temporary holiday with some friends having a very fun vacation together, but it isn’t quite home with your family. Playing together had helped us a lot over these difficult months, but we all mutually couldn’t wait to get back home to our (respective quartet) families which we really missed. I realised that it wasn’t just being in a string quartet itself that this feeling was limited to, but instead being part of a well-established chamber music ensemble.
In any chamber music ensemble, you go through many challenges together where you learn pretty much everything about each other as time passes– the exact way they would approach and rehearse, how they move and play, almost to the point where you can predict and know exactly how to fit in with them and likewise the others being able to do this with me! It happens so naturally over time as well that you can’t pinpoint when it started to happen. The number of times I realised in rehearsal where we started to finish each other’s sentences with the exact same ideas, or not say anything at all and things would work out simply through sensing. Even where things can be pre-planned, there is an intricate spontaneity between each player because of this high level of trust which makes every performance and every ensemble so unique. While we are quite individual and different people and players, the way we know each other, approach music together as a unit to create our own unique ensemble sound and voice as musicians is something we realise is truly special that we’re holding onto for as long as we can.
You first came into the FutureMakers program in 2020, what are some highlights from the program so far? Has the program been much different to what you thought it would be?
Will: Due to the complications and uncertainty of Covid, the FutureMakers program has mostly been spent online and over Zoom calls so far which I don’t think anyone expected would be the case when we first started. But nevertheless, it has been a joy working and getting to know Paul Kildea, Katherine Kemp and Janet McKay who are our FutureMakers supervisors and mentors. Despite the ongoing situation with Covid, they have continued to try and find ways to keep us engaged and inspired. The bulk of this has been through online Zoom calls with various leaders and creatives of the arts industry where they have talked to us about their careers and lives giving us lessons and learnings on many topics ranging from copyright, branding and audience feedback to creative process, arts management and programming. A particular highlight for me was the chat with Tim Kelly (a co-founder of 5stream) who talked to us about his experience with live-streaming music and gave us advice on the many ways to approach it.
Dan: I don’t think anything from the year 2020 went how any of us anticipated! Having said that, with the obvious disruption and continual postponing of in-person events there have been silver linings along the way; and we feel endlessly grateful to the Musica Viva team who have been so supportive and inspiring throughout what has been a challenging time for musicians nation-wide.
Another such silver lining lies in the wide variety of leaders of various artistic fields we’ve had the privilege to meet and talk to on Zoom. Given that pretty much everything was online-only for much of last year, physical location/availability wasn’t as much of a factor as it might have been otherwise, allowing for a great variety of speakers. One such creative tour de force we met was Yaron Lifschitz, CEO of Circa. He really left an impression on all of us - I personally resonated with many of his views, and was incredibly impressed with the absolute efficiency that he works by. I distinctly remember he discussed the dangers of some arts project proposals sounding like uninspired grant applications, and mentioned that he’d, ‘much rather hear someone talking about being obsessed with the colour red’, if it meant for a more genuine inspiration and connection behind a project. This kind of obsessive genuineness is something I also much prefer, rather than something that ‘ticks all the boxes’ for the sake of it. We’ve been very blessed to meet such genuine and inspiring artists such as Yaron and wish to thank them again for their time talking to us!
Learn more about Musica Viva’s FutureMakers initiative and the artists involved here.