In Conversation with Stephen King
By Justine Nguyen
Appearing at Adelaide Town Hall this September, Musica Viva audiences will once again have the pleasure of seeing acclaimed violist Stephen King in concert. Ahead of what is sure to be a fantastic evening of musicmaking, King discusses the joys of performing with old friends, the ins and outs of the program, and what continues to motivate him as a musician who’s enjoyed a long and varied career.
This concert sees you reunited with fellow musicians Helen Ayres and Simon Cobcroft, with whom you played with for Musica Viva in 2020. What is it like to rehearse and perform with them again, this time with Cameron Hill and Konstantin Shamray?
All five of us are friends who have played together many times over the years. Cameron, Simon and Konstantin have all played with me through the ASQ and Helen and I played in ACO and go back as far as AYO together. We have a great understanding and respect for each other’s playing and have a fun time creating music together.
This program is modelled on a program originally intended to be presented by the Goldner String Quartet and Piers Lane. Perhaps the most daunting but rewarding is the Brahms Piano Quintet. Could you talk a little bit about your history with this particular work and/or composer, and what the role of the string quartet is here?
The Brahms Piano Quintet is one of our favourite piano quintets, it is also the only major quintet that I have not had the joy of performing with Konstantin (yet). It is both lush and voluptuous yet rhythmic and driving and dripping with melodies to stay in your ear. Each of the instrumental parts are written for egalitarian music making, which makes it especially enjoyable for us all. I first played the quintet at an AYO Summer Academy in the 1990’s before I had decided to make music my career. The experience of playing this piece with friends helped inspire me to become a chamber musician.
You will also be performing Dvorak’s String Quartet No 12, American. Has preparing the work for this concert given you any new insight into one of the composer’s most important pieces? After all, it marks a turning point in his output.
Both the Brahms and the Dvorak were to be performed by the Goldner Quartet, so it’s wonderful that we are also very happy to perform these wonderful works. The Dvorak seems as fresh today as it was in the late 19th Century, with its sense of bright optimism felt during his journey and family holiday in the mid-west. It’s quite infectious. We had forgotten how prominent Dvorak’s love of train travel and the rhythms created by them is in the music, particularly you’ll hear it in the last movement.
You will also be performing Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No 15. You have also performed his works throughout your career. What do you think accounts for Sculthorpe’s enduring power, and what do you find compelling about this work in particular?
The Goldner Quartet are well renowned for their recordings of the complete cycle of Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartets. It seems only fitting to play one of them as they are so iconic. String Quartet No 15 is made up of 5 short contrasting movements that encapsulate the variety of his emotional style perfectly. This work was written as the set work for the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition in 1999. I played with the Coolidge Quartet from the USA in that competition, and we were the first cab off the rank so by good fortune we played the premiere performance.
This year has seen you take up an exciting new role with the Australian String Quartet, moving from your position as its violist to its inaugural Director of Engagement and Learning. Can you talk about what the new role involves, and why you made the change?
After so many years being a travelling musician, I was interested to find other ways to make the music travel, without me. In this new role with the ASQ I am developing creative ways to take the music of the ASQ beyond the concert hall and broaden its engagement across the country.
Performance opportunities have for most musicians been and continue to be highly precarious owing to COVID. How have you weathered this period of insecurity?
So far we have been very lucky to be able to continue many of our music making opportunities in South Australia. The challenging part has been touring across borders, but there have even been windows for that in the last 18 months. We have also been involved in a lot of commissioning, recording, filming, streaming performances and finding newer ways to experience music, such as in the world of virtual reality through a project with digeridoo virtuoso William Barton.
As a musician who’s enjoyed a long and varied career, playing with some of Australia’s most important ensembles including the ASQ and Australian Chamber Orchestra, what keeps you motivated and passionate about the work?
In short, the music does. Also, I am inspired by people who are passionate and committed to whatever they are doing, whether they are a sportsperson, musician, nurse or barrista. I want to share my passion for music, which provides new challenges and rewards all the time and can make a difference to our lives and communities.
Stephen King will be performing on 22 September at Adelaide Town hall with Cameron Hill, Helen Ayres, Simon Cobcroft and Konstantin Shamray. Book your tickets for the event here.