An Interview – Shirley Apthorp

For Musica Viva Tour 2013, Australia

When Marie Bitlloch and Donald Grant founded a string quartet in 1998, the group carried the name of its first violinist, Magnus Johnston. For ease of administration, the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester liked to list string quartets under surnames. At the time, Marie did not dare to dream that their student group might evolve into a professional ensemble.

‘Being in a quartet seemed something very far away,’ she recalls. ‘I knew that the odds were slim. There are so many ifs involved in building a quartet. I knew that I loved it and that it would be amazing, but I never quite believed it until it actually happened.’

Several years of intense collective study and a few competition wins later, the quartet was well on its way. Swedish–Estonian violist Martin Saving joined, and a year later Johnston left; it was time to reconsider the question of the group’s name.

‘Mendelssohn’s op 13 Quartet was one of the first pieces that we played with this combination of people, and that we felt like a quartet with,’ says Marie. ‘We’re very passionate about Mendelssohn’s music, so we wanted the connection with him in our name.’

They settled on Elias, in honour of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah, and have happily maintained the link to his music.

Johnson was replaced by Sara Bitlloch, Marie’s sister, bringing a note of family harmony into a group with otherwise wildly disparate backgrounds. Donald had grown up in the Scottish Highlands, part of a family steeped in the traditions of Gaelic folk music. Martin was raised in Sweden and studied in London, where he nurtured a growing interest in historically informed performance practice. The Bitlloch sisters share Spanish–Catalan parentage, but while Marie studied in France, Sara moved to the UK as a 12 year old. ‘I came to a boarding school here,’ she explains, ‘so England actually feels more like home to me than France.’

‘You should say that it was the Menuhin School, not just a boarding school,’ interjects Marie, ‘otherwise it sounds as if you came here to be posh. And you’re not!’

Sara thrived in the Menuhin School’s environment, happy to be surrounded by friends and eager to learn from the high-calibre music teachers the institution offered. ‘Menuhin came to the school quite often, to conduct the orchestra, to give lessons, or sometimes to play chamber music with the students – it was just amazing,’ she remembers.

Donald, further north, attended St Mary’s Music School, also set up by Menuhin, and was similarly happy.

Asked if they feel any sense of common sense of musical ancestry though the Menuhin connection, Donald and Sara look at each other blankly, then shake their heads. ‘In terms of instrumental approach we are all very different, I think,’ Sara reflects. ‘What unites us is more a passion for the music, and a feel for it.’

‘I think it’s a plus,’ Donald says.

‘We each have different musical tastes and influences, and everyone brings that passion to the Quartet from a different angle,’ says Marie. ‘That ends up a good mixture.’

Martin is the self-defined Baroque freak; Sara shares the interest. Donald brings a background in folk music and a love of jazz, as well as a keen interest in song and vocal music. ‘New music is also important,’ Marie adds. ‘You need to explore what is actually happening at the moment.’

We meet in a lofty London studio, a room full of open space and art objects, where the Quartet is demonstrably pleased to be able to rehearse. The four musicians are clearly very comfortable in one another’s company, but the spark of difference to which they constantly refer is also palpable.

‘We come from diverse backgrounds, but I think in terms of styles of playing, the more ways we have of expressing things, the more interesting a quartet can be,’ says Sara. ‘It’s really the big challenge to bring all these differences together, but it’s also an amazing thing when it works. The result is somehow bigger than the sum of its parts. No one person comes through as just themself. They’re always a part of the four, and it’s the combination which is so interesting.’

When it comes to the music of Haydn and Beethoven, both of which feature in the Quartet’s Australian programs, the Elias Quartet draws not only on the work that some of its members have invested in historical performance practice, but also on what they have learned from the older quartets with which they have studied.

‘We’ve been searching for our own Viennese language for a number of years,’ explains Martin. ‘It’s repertoire where different approaches come together in the most fruitful way for me – it’s music that needs to be so light in some ways and so emotional in others that if you go too far in either direction it’s not going to be right.’

A feeling for improvisation, says Donald, is also vital; playing with British Baroque specialist Trevor Pinnock showed him the way to bring the freedom of his folk and jazz interests into the music of Haydn. ‘We found a new sense of fun and freedom when we worked with him,’ he says.

This will be the Elias String Quartet’s second Australian tour, and the players look forward immensely to their return. ‘We’re looking forward to playing another Australian piece,’ says Donald. ‘Last time we were there, the first thing we did was play Carl Vine’s string quartet for him in a hotel. That was a really nice introduction. We spend our lives wondering what the composer wants, so when you get to actually meet a composer, it’s something special.’

The tour will take place half-way through their Beethoven Project, which sees them develop a complete cycle over four years, documenting the process in an interactive manner on the Internet as they progress.

‘The web site is a way of sharing more than the finished product with the audience,’ Sara explains.

‘The Internet is becoming more and more part of our lives as musicians,’ Donald continues. ‘We love having a real mix of age and class at our concerts, and this is a great way of finding a new audience.’

‘Showing what happens behind the scenes is more important now than it was last century,’ adds Martin. ‘This is something that is still changing – the internet is opening music up to everyone.’

‘A lot of people are intimidated by classical music,’ concludes Sara. ‘Part of what we’d really like to do is break down those barriers, because I’m sure that anyone who just sits down and listens to a quartet will like it.’

Shirley Apthorp © 2012