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As concertgoers, we feel a profound sense of awe when we watch a musician performing from memory.
Sometimes they’ll close their eyes and allow the music to immerse them; other times, they’ll glance around to their performance partners, giving cues through human connection in lieu of notes on the page. We marvel at the spectacle of a player who exhibits technical skill and stirring expression – all without missing a note.
It’s common to experience this feeling when watching a soloist who has memorised a concerto. Less often do we have the chance to see a chamber ensemble filled with four virtuosic musicians, equally talented at their string instruments, all playing their parts from memory while creating a unified sound. A sound that identifies them as a group – in this case, as the Vision String Quartet.
The young Berlin-based ensemble makes its Australian debut with Musica Viva. When asked how the players prepare to tour a full concert program from memory, violinist Daniel Stoll offers a surprisingly simple response: “Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.” In fact, he goes on to repeat this word a further 23 times (once injecting the word “sleep” in the middle of the list). Though it’s safe to assume a far greater number of repetitions take place in the practice room.
The Vision String Quartet’s decision to play everything from memory arose during a masterclass – “one unforgettable day” in Southern Germany. Cellist Leonard Disselhorst recalls how the group practised Debussy’s only string quartet, and could hear another ensemble playing the same music through the walls.
“Without glancing at the score, we instinctively joined in, and successfully managed to navigate through the entire piece,” Leonard shares.
“This experience led us to embrace the challenge of performing from memory – a decision we carried forward to our very first concert.”
The choice has flow-on effects: without sheet music, there’s no need for music stands – so why bother sitting in a standard configuration?
“The decision to play from memory naturally led to the choice of standing up, and since then, we have all mostly grown accustomed to this approach,” Leonard says. (With the exception of the cellist, of course.)
It may sound like a logistical decision, but it’s one that enhances the impact of their performance. They’re not rigidly confined to their seats: we can watch the four become unleashed with the music, playing it with their whole bodies.
To violinist Florian Willeitner, it’s not just for show: “Playing from memory allows you to connect even deeper with the musical flow. You listen and play differently.”
“There is an additional layer of excitement when you play by heart, which forces you to be into the music 100 per cent, all the time.”
Without music stands, there is no physical barrier between audience and performer. And this too speaks to the ethos of the Vision String Quartet and the way these players represent what they’re about, which may be unlike the other ensembles you’ve come across. They like to describe their group as a “band”. In group photos, they dress traditionally in the colour of concert blacks – but they’re standing in a pastel pink ball pit.
Even their Warner Classics album Spectrum was so tailored to their ideas about how chamber music can be presented that it was entirely composed, performed, and produced by the group – and they directed their own film clips, too.
“We want to show our audience that chamber music – and especially a string quartet – is not necessary four serious conservative [musicians],” Daniel says. They make a point of their music being for anyone and everyone – no matter how old or new their repertoire.
In their Musica Viva tour, the artists present a series of invigorating, complex, and emotive works. “We searched for a program which is full of contrasts,” Daniel says. And their insights as composers of new music has paved the way for a deep level of respect when interpreting older works, too.
“We find it very important to really get into a music style or genre with all its specifications and details before going on stage,” Daniel says.
Florian has perhaps a more emotional response to the repertoire: “I personally love Dvořák because it feels very much like home for me.”
“Dvořák was born in Bohemia not far from where I grew up, so I am very familiar with the landscapes – beautiful soft green hills, and endless forests – and folk music Dvořák was influenced by.”
The Bartok was also influenced by folk music, Florian says. “We love to play folk music and include elements of it into our own pieces as well, which is why we feel very close to this repertoire.”
Of course, the Berlin-based group have their own ideas about what it means to take this European music on their international tour.
“We are eagerly anticipating the opportunity to travel to the far reaches of the world, and perform in the land of kangaroos and untamed creatures,” Leonard says.
But on a more serious note, he adds: “The prospect of connecting with our Australian fan community is exhilarating.”
“This tour marks a significant milestone for us, and we are deeply humbled to be a part of the Musica Viva season. We are dedicated to bringing a fresh perspective to the chamber music scene in Australia, and making a positive impact.”
By Stephanie Eslake for Musica Viva Australia, 2023