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In conversation with The Eskandari Quartet

Next month, the Women's Voices Choir collaborate with the budding Eskandari Quartet, as part of Women's Voices present: Modern Femininity - a unique performance at the People's History Museum for Women's History Month, curated by musical director, Anna Ruth McLuckie and featuring guest musicians, Hunrosa and Sean Rogan (Diving Station). We catch up with the Eskandaris on all things New Music and Manchester...

1. When watching the quartet perform, there is a clear chemistry between you. What brought the four of you together? (Dan) We enjoy playing together very much, and work really hard on trying to develop a good ensemble sound. It’s lovely to hear that our work in rehearsal translates into musical chemistry. The quartet was formed in 2017 at the University of Manchester for an ensemble performance module. Before Rhiannon joined the quartet in 2019, our first violinist was Dominika Latusek. Dominika concluded her studies at the University shortly after that first performance but we enjoyed w-orking together so much that we decided to continue playing as a quartet. We asked Rhiannon to join as 2nd violin shortly thereafter, and I became the 1st violinist. We’ve been playing together ever since!

2. You perform a lot of contemporary music, playing lots of music by Manchester composers. How do you decide between the group what, or who, you want to play? (Rhiannon) We very much decide as a group what we want to play; learning a new work is often quite a commitment so it needs to be something we are all very excited about! That being said, it is usually an individual member of the quartet that makes the suggestion—whether it is a 'bucket list' piece that they have always wanted to play, a contemporary work they have newly discovered, someone who has approached us, or a local composer they really want to work with—and we together decide if it is something we think is right for us as a group and will fit in with our upcoming projects. One thing we love about playing contemporary music and working with Manchester composers is that it can be a very collaborative process, so we look to people that we feel we will learn as much from as they will through working with us. We all have different reasons for choosing a programme, too. Sometimes there are purely musical reasons – for instance, if we want to be technically challenged, or work on a particular element of our ensemble playing. But there are often other factors in play, like a desire to play less-frequently performed works or to represent a more diverse range of musical voices.

3. In performing lots of Manchester composers, what is your impression of music-making in the city? Does this place inform your creative and musical expression? (Clara) Music making is at the core of life in Manchester and I find it to be endlessly inspiring. Personally, as a music student, I found it necessary that the city where I was studying had a vibrant music scene. When looking for inspiration to practice I could pop down the road to the Bridgewater Hall to experience high level playing from orchestras such as the Hallé, BBC Philharmonic or Manchester Camerata. What I love most about Manchester, however, is how it supports new artists. The small gig venues in the Northern Quarter allow anyone to perform original music and these musicians have created an extremely supportive community that is continually growing. There is so much young talent in Manchester and as a spectator I find it thrilling to watch my peers perform the music they love to write. As a quartet, we are inspired by those who are doing something different and they motivate us to try and think outside of the box, especially when it comes to programming.

4. What is your rehearsal process? Where do you practice and do you all critique or is one person particularly vocal? (Nadia) We usually meet at Clara’s or Rhiannon’s and start with a nice catch-up complimented by a cup of tea before setting up – we always have so many ideas and energy during rehearsals that this can be a sacred moment of peace! If we have a particular concert coming up we tend to work quite intensely – we work best when the pressure is on!

Depending on what piece we’re working on and what stage we’re at, different approaches are used. Some pieces require more ensemble work than others. Certain pieces pose significant technical challenges and therefore require more individual practice. We all start with varying ideas of what a piece should sound like, from a particular bow stroke to stylistic interpretation. Through a mixture of musical experimentation and discussion, we figure out our favourite way of playing a piece together.

In terms of critiquing each other, I’d say we all have our own superhero talent that we like to pick up on. Dan tends to focus on technical aspects of ensemble playing such as the importance of similar bow strokes and how to get a sense of unity in the ensemble. Rhiannon is the queen of tempo! She has an excellent sense of pulse, and this is of considerable benefit to the ensemble. I mostly look at the abstract bigger picture, and mediate the different voices in the ensemble. Clara is super reliable in her rhythm and, as a conductor too, always knows the score inside out. This really helps us when we play contemporary music with complex rhythms and changing time signatures. We all balance each other out and bring a variety of ideas to the table in rehearsal – we hope this comes across in our playing!

5. What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced as a quartet? (Nadia) Since we rehearse in a lot of detail and are all really passionate, challenges often come up in reaching musical decisions! This can be very time consuming, so we often have to prioritise things under pressure when we don’t have much time to prepare new repertoire for a concert. We’re constantly developing new ways of working, and are still discovering how we work best. But for now, we’re improving in overcoming these with each project as we’re constantly learning more about our instrument, music and ensemble playing.

6. What was your favourite performance so far and why? (Dan) We’ve performed together so much now that it’s difficult to choose one instance. A few stand out, though. Particularly, premiering Will Frampton’s Watermark and Benjamin Marrington-Reeve’s Blindfolded in the Holy Name Church in March 2019 was a special moment. We’d worked intensively with the composers in rehearsal for an extended period, and it was such a privilege to perform their work. It felt quite significant for us as quartet, in that it was the first time we had premiered new music as an ensemble – it almost felt like we were aligning ourselves with the new music community at the University, and that we could go on to do some really interesting things from there. We have been lucky enough to work with a fantastic array of composers since.

We all really enjoyed our performance at Manchester Cathedral in December 2019 in which we performed Matt Brown’s piece Dance for the Festivals of Light and also premiered a piece by Fraz Ireland, a composer at the RNCM. We played these contemporary Mancunian works with a short quartet movement by Judith Weir, Hadyn’s ‘Lark’ Quartet and Borodin’s second string quartet. We had a great response from the audience, for which we were very grateful!

7. In your interest in performing new music, how does this translate into a community event such as Women's Voices at the People's History Museum? What does this intersect between the contemporary and the community mean for you? (Rhiannon) In our view, the intersection between contemporary music and community music-making is one of the best ways to keep the string quartet relevant to the times. We are always searching for opportunities to look at the string quartet in new ways and are always inspired by working outside our comfort zone. What we love about premiering new works or working on projects such as this is that we feel like we have different creative freedoms to those that we enjoy when we play canonical repertoire, where there are years, even centuries, of expectation and tradition dictating how each bar should be played. When we perform a new piece, it can feel like we can temporarily forget about this 'anxiety of influence' (as it is often called). In performing contemporary music, we always try and open up the music of the string quartet genre to a broader audience.

8. As individuals how did you start learning your instruments and what opportunities did you get to improve your playing? (Everyone!)

Nadia – I started learning the viola out of frustration with everyone playing the piano (my first instrument), so I decided to try and be the best at something no one else played! I was lucky enough to go to Trinity Laban Junior Conservatoire where I met other more experienced and talented string players. This is where I became inspired to become better and play well for others in ensembles rather than just for myself. Since then I have been obsessed with string quartet playing!

Rhiannon - I have been incredibly lucky in the opportunities I have been given and it is something I am really grateful for. I started learning the violin when I was 8 through the local music service and received a grant for lessons from Awards for Young Musicians allowing me to have private lessons. When I was 11 I got a music specialist place at Bristol Cathedral Choir School so could play in orchestras and chamber groups as part of my school day- which is a pretty unique experience for a non fee-paying school! I really loved being able to play with other people and this is what inspired me to continue improving and exploring new musical genres.

Dan – I started playing violin when I was 7. I grew up in a musical household (my Father Andrew Phillips is a film composer and electronica artist), so learning an instrument was obligatory! In addition to my traditional training in the violin, I grew up performing Irish, Hungarian, and Serbian folk music, bluegrass, and gypsy jazz as a boy. At 14, I started studying with Andy Sherwood – a professor of violin and conducting at Trinity Laban Conservatoire. Under Andy’s baton, I played in the Brighton Youth Orchestra aged and Brighton Youth Orchestra String Ensemble, which I led in my final year with the orchestra aged 16. I was also involved in Glyndebourne’s youth music programme in my childhood/early-teenage years, both as a singer and as a violinist. I played as a chamber musician in the 'Rinaldo Project' with members of the OAE, and played as an orchestral violinist with the Southbank Sinfonia in a production of David Bruce's Opera "Nothing". I got my first experience of quartet playing at 16 with the beautifully named ‘Brighton Youth Orchestra String Ensemble Quartet’. We played Debussy’s String Quartet in G minor, Mozart’s Divertimenti and Frank Bridge’s Sally in our Alley, which really sparked my love for quartet playing.

Clara - My parents were both musicians and encouraged me to start making music at a young age. I started playing the cello at RNCM Young Strings and then moved on to Stockport youth orchestra and Hallé youth orchestra as well as playing in all school ensembles. Having the opportunity to play in such high level youth ensembles transformed my playing and helped to improve my musicianship.

9. What's next for the Eskandari Quartet?

Alongside our usual bookings we are working on a collaboration with the Enki Jazz Quartet, with whom we will perform some of their original music alongside string quartets by Torke and Weir. Aside from this the next big concert we have planned will be at 12pm on the 6th of June at Rochdale Parish Church where we will be performing Janacek’s First String Quartet with a quartet by Haydn.

Hear the Eskandari Quartet at the People's History Museum on 12th March as part of Women's Voices present: Modern Femininity. For more updates from the Eskandaris, follow @theeskandariquartet or visit their website


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