Creating the Dream Team
Byline: Megan Steller
There are some practical steps that go into creating a new chamber ensemble: you must find exceptional performers, choose a program that both exhilarates and moves, book in rehearsal times and let the work begin. And then there’s an ingredient that’s not so easy to put a label on, a certain magic that is impossible to describe. It’s the spark that you see when three people come together from disparate practices and make the art come completely alive in front of your eyes. As a listener, you might have experienced it before; the shiver that goes up your spine when new collaborators look at one another and begin, completely together, as if they’ve played alongside one another for a lifetime. It’s rare, and there’s nothing quite like it.
I asked the acclaimed pianist Amir Farid about whether there is something unexplainable about the feeling from a performer’s point of view, and he agreed that there was: ‘There are so many immeasurable variables as to why a group of musicians get together and play very well, and others get together and play immaculately. And it’s not just in chamber music that this is the case – it’s in every piece of art that you create. It’s the soloist’s relationship with the composer, or the orchestral player’s relationship with the person sitting next to them; it can take a long time to know a composer’s mind and heart, but when it’s there, it’s there.’ It’s something that none of the three musicians you’ll see on stage tonight worries about, though. I noticed as we each spoke that each member of the trio has a special kind of trust – in each other, in the music, in the magic. The three may not have spent much time together, but there’s something incredibly special about their approach to collaborating. Each echoed the feeling of knowing that they would all show up fully, with flexibility and with open hearts to the music and to one another.
Preparation is a solitary art in many ways; before the collaboration, you must spend hours alone with the notes. There is time getting to know the composer, the intention, your own changing feelings about the repertoire. I was curious about whether recent changes to restrictions, and the somewhat forced solitude would impact our musicians’ preparation, considering rehearsal timelines are perhaps shorter than they usually are, but none seem fazed. Violinist Emily Sun and horn player Nicolas Fleury have both lived and worked for stretches in the United Kingdom, and are used to a fast-paced working environment, where timelines ahead of a performance can leave something to be desired. And for Amir, who splits his time between New York and Australia, it’s less about time in the room, and more about how you show up. This was an oft-repeated feeling as I investigated the ‘new normal’ of chamber music preparation: ‘you have to be flexible,’ Nicolas told me, ‘flexible in your preparation, so you can arrive and fit with your ensemble, and flexible as you perform. We get this beautiful opportunity to play these incredible works many times, and as you travel and perform in new venues, things change, and the more relaxed you are, the better.’
Each performer has also prepared themselves by listening to one another from afar. ‘What makes a chamber ensemble click?’ I asked, and each responded with a variation of ‘We are already clicking!’ ‘We like each other’s playing, so there is something innate and instinctive about it,’ Nicolas told me. They’re also there with a bigger goal in mind: ‘The music that we get to play is unbelievable, and we’re here to serve that music, and the composer’s intentions.’
There are, of course, ways to prepare that serve chamber ensembles well. Working on stamina, for example, is of the utmost importance for Nicolas, who in each performance has to perform Brahms’ extraordinary Horn Trio in E-flat major, as well as Mozart’s arranged Trio for Piano, Violin and Horn, which is like ‘running two 800 metre races one after the other!’ You can’t just sit with your instrument and play for eight hours a day, either, you have to get the balance right. ‘You have to be an athlete,’ he says, ‘be active, have a healthy diet.’ Nicolas, like Emily and Amir, has to divide his time between other things – teaching, orchestral performances, other gigs, life. Balance is everything, and as well as being crucial for staying healthy and well, is critical for heading into the first rehearsal. ‘You have to really think about how much you prepare,’ Amir told me, ‘practising enough that you’re confident, but not over-practising so you’re set in your ways.’ With artists of this calibre, where preparation and innate understanding are a given, a lot of the rehearsal time will be instinctive: ‘I like to keep words to an absolute minimum, and we’ll definitely just understand each other musically – through gesture,’ Amir says. ‘I trust my instincts, and I trust my colleagues – I know that we’ll each go in playing how we feel, and we’ll be able to move and adapt from there. There’s something exciting about this approach – there’s a lot of possibility. All we need is an open mind.’ It sounds a little like improvisation, I tell him, and he laughs. ‘It is a bit! We can keep each other on our toes. I like the feeling of reacting in the moment, being challenged. We’re giving each other something to play off.’
What you see on stage tonight is a lot about preparation, and a lot about years of work and study and hours at their instruments. But it’s also a lot about heart, and instinct, and magic; things you can’t put words to. What you are hearing has never been done before, not quite like this. And the artists? Whether it’s the first performance of the tour or the last, you’d better believe they’re having fun up there.
Nicolas Fleury, Emily Sun and Amir Farid tour nationally for Musica Viva from 9 June to 26 June.