In a wide-ranging interview for Musica Viva, violist Sally Boud discusses the origins of the celebrated Darlington Quartet, the group’s upcoming performance with pianist Graeme Gilling, and her hopes for the future of chamber music.

The Darlington Quartet are known and cherished by Perth audiences. Can you tell us a little bit about the group and how you came to play with each other?

The Darlington Quartet grew out of the Darlington Winter Chamber Music series, founded in 2004 by Jon Tooby and now under the Artistic Directorship of Semra Lee-Smith and Graeme Gilling. Zak and I were already regular guests in this wonderful concert series held in the Darlington Hall in the Perth Hills, and after some performances for the Blackwood River Chamber Music Festival in 2015 we decided that we enjoyed playing together so much that we would form a more official quartet.

Our musical relationship, though, actually goes back much further than Darlington; Semra and I played in the Halcyon Quartet when we were both still studying, and Jon was a guest for the Schubert Quintet at our first public concert in 1995.

What do you think differentiates the Darlington Quartet from other chamber ensembles? What do you think of as your calling card?

It is always difficult to tell from within a group what makes it unique - that would be a question for the people who come to our concerts! But we all enjoy each other's company and respect each other as musicians. Whatever dramas are going on in other aspects of our lives, the quartet is always a bit of a haven. We love it and I think that comes across in our performances.

You will be performing with special guest, pianist Graeme Gilling for Musica Viva. Have you performed with him before? And what’s the pleasure of combining a quartet with a piano in performance?

Graeme has played with the Darlington Trio with Jon and Semra for many years, and we have performed many piano quartets and quintets with him. It is always special to play with Graeme. When you add a piano to the quartet the strings have to work in a completely different way. And the added power of a piano is quite exhilarating, especially sitting where I do, in the middle of the group!

The program is an interesting one – Mozart’s beloved Spring Quartet offset by two comparatively unknown works. Can you talk a little about each work, and what you think placing them together in performance will achieve?

The Mozart holds a special place for me because it was the first piece I seriously worked on in my quartet with friends from school. We had a wonderful Hungarian tutor, Erika Toth, who treated us like proper artists and really pushed us, which was an amazing experience for me as a 14 year old, and one that definitely made me think about pursuing chamber music as a career. We know from Mozart's writings that he worked very hard on this series of quartets which he dedicated to Haydn, and this quartet is so dense with ideas and musical motifs that carry through all four movements. At the same time it has that uniquely Mozartean balance between the profound and the playful. I think the last movement is the most joyous fugue in all music!

Emma Jayakumar is a West Australian composer and we are playing a movement from her suite for string quartet, Bell Birds, written last year for us and inspired by the poem of the same name by Henry Kendall. Emma is a singer as well as a composer and this comes across in the lyricism of this music, which for me evokes the almost ecstatic feeling of being at one with the natural world.

Amy Beach's piano quintet is also lyrical and full of emotional intensity. It was influenced by the piano quintet of Brahms but  also shows a unique and compelling voice. Amy was a musical prodigy and largely self-taught as a composer, which makes the artistry of this work all the more extraordinary. In her later years she was very active in giving young female composers the support she perhaps felt she missed out on herself. It makes you wonder how many other amazing voices remained silent for lack of opportunity and encouragement.

You play the viola. When did you first come to the instrument, and what do you love about it?

I started playing viola when I was 11, after learning piano for a few years. I was going for a music aptitude scholarship at a new school and picked viola at random because I was so disappointed that I couldn't do my first choice, the flute. It was definitely a good decision as I can't even blow up a balloon without getting dizzy!

I love the viola for the vocal quality of its sound and its subtly powerful role in the middle of the harmony. The viola is not as acoustically perfect as the violin - its pitch is too low for its size. I really like that imperfection - it appeals to me philosophically!

From playing with the Australian String Quartet to teaching at UWA, you have had a rich and evolving career. What have been some of the key lessons for you along the way?

Years ago when I was in the Tankstream Quartet and we were doing a lot of competitions, we were knocked out after reaching the semi-finals of the London Competition. We had the opportunity to talk to jury members afterwards, and I remember Sigmund Nissel, second violinist of the beloved Amadeus Quartet, telling us that we played very well, but without love. And he was right - we'd got ourselves in such a frenzy of perfectionism that we'd driven all the joy out of our playing. That lesson has stayed with me and deepened over the years. I've definitely got better at balancing hard work with accepting that perfection is neither possible nor desirable, and communication is far more important.

Also it took me a long time, but I've finally accepted that practising scales really is essential. Unfortunately!

Performance opportunities have for most musicians been and continue to be highly precarious owing to COVID. How have you weathered this period of insecurity?

We have been relatively lucky here in Perth, but even with the few short lockdowns we have had this year, I have had projects that I had worked towards cancelled. Last year was worse, although I was lucky to get JobKeeper and could continue to work with my students over Zoom when uni closed. It does make it feel strange, putting time and energy and care into preparing concerts and knowing at the back of your mind that anything could change and things could be cancelled at a moment's notice. For most freelance and chamber music concerts, no matter how many hours you have spent practising and rehearsing, if you don't play the concert you don't get paid. And not everyone has been able to access assistance. The performing arts are precious - they give so many people so much meaning and enjoyment, and the people who work in those fields should be much better supported.

Unsurprisingly, many people have sought refuge in music at this time. Are you listening to anything at the moment that’s provided similar relief? 

It's probably heresy to say it, but I tend to turn more to words than music for solace. Music winds me up too much! Although listening to my son's accordion practice, I can almost imagine I'm in Paris...

What are your hopes for the future of chamber music, either big or small?

A little while ago I adjudicated the strings for the Bunbury Eisteddford, in the South West of WA. One of the sections was Junior Chamber Music, and I was it unexpectedly moved to hear kids who really hadn't been learning their instruments very long beginning their journey working on all the things we continue to think about as musicians: ensemble playing, intonation, rhythm, but also -  inherent in the process - listening, negotiating, allowing space for everyone's voice.

Chamber music, played at any level, is a wonderful thing for this reason, and I would hope that as many people as possible have the chance to experience that, whether as players or listeners.

Sally Boud and her Darlington Quartet will be performing on 3 October at Perth Concert Hall with Graeme Gilling. Book your tickets for the event here.