This young string quartet goes far

The Ellery String Quartet. Photo: Peter Hislop

Music / “The First of Many”, Ellery String Quartet. At Larry Sitsky Hall, ANU School of Music, March 19. Reviewed by IAN McLEAN

In the atmospherically lit Larry Sitsky Hall, the four Wesley Scholars who make up the Ellery String Quartet presented a delightful concert underscored by youthful enthusiasm, passionate and confident playing, and refined music.

Brad Tham (violin 1), Anika Chan (violin 2), Yona Su (viola) and James Monro (cello) kicked off their performance with a vibrant first movement from Gustav Holst’s “St Paul’s Suite”.

Based on a folk jig, this spirited dance got off to an exciting start with excellent dynamic control and contrast. Aside from a few minor slacks at the end of phrases, the playing was well controlled and beautifully balanced and, appropriately, set the stage for a relaxed gig.

Ms. Su’s reception to the audience was lighthearted, cheerful and humorous, which immediately enhanced the relaxed atmosphere.

The centerpiece of the first half was “Wood Works”, a collection of Nordic folk tunes arranged by the Danish String Quartet. The set’s 12 short movements covered material ranging from Danish wedding music and work songs from Norway, to a lovely Swedish waltz and even improvisation in a fun little piece about five sheep and four goats.

The music was rich in imagery and the quartet was particularly refined in their playing as they captured the wide variety of musical emotions with ease and clarity. The interaction between the players was a pleasure to watch. Eyes met constantly and knowing smiles constantly greeted each other as musical moments of great joy or difficulty were approached with assured certainty.

Styles during “Wood Works” ranged from soulful and graceful to bright and breezy with painted musical imagery of everything from fjords to flower fields.

The dances were similar to maybe Ireland or the mountains of America and I’m sure I even heard a Nordic version of ‘The Lord of the Dance’. Playing was always well controlled, inputs were crisp and precise, tonal quality was rich and full, and irregular time patterns were played with meticulous precision.

After an intermission, an unscheduled piece was introduced, again in a bubbly and delicious manner. Grace Blomfield, a sophomore in video game music composition, wrote a piece especially for the quartet where she explored camaraderie and the associated emotions through her interesting work “Battle on the Black Rose,” taken from a battle of pirate ships.

It was the first time that one of her compositions had been performed in public and she deserved it! His writing was dramatic with a fiery and brimstone opening, transitioning into a quiet reflective section and then returning to a thrilling pace to conclude. The playing was once again masterful with James Munro’s booming cello.

Mature understanding and interpretation, along with first-class precision, brought out the finale, Dvorak’s “String Quartet No 12, Op 96 American.” The four contrasting movements, with their variety of styles and the common thread of folksongs, have been beautifully captured. The intonation was excellent, difficult rhythmic patterns were conquered with apparent ease, and the interplay between instruments was terrific. The fourth movement was particularly moving.

An unexpected encore was both a lush, yet dynamic and driven version of “Waltzing Matilda.” This beautiful arrangement ended a superb evening.

With their youthful exuberance and fearless approach, this quartet simply enjoys their music and the joy they show in doing so is contagious. This is supported by high quality musicianship and high level technical playing ability.

At the start of their career, they titled this concert “The First of Many”. There is no doubt that this will be a truism. The Ellery String Quartet is on the move!

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