Coffee and Romance | the Enigma Quartet

Enigma Quartet 2020 colour publicity photo

For the first concert of the new Cafe Culture concert series at the Independent Theatre, the Enigma Quartet brought together two Romantic composers for a relaxed European interlude on a chilly Sydney evening.

The Cafe Culture concert series brings the performers out of the theatre and into the arched foyer for a more casual listening environment. While still respecting the performance, audience members are encouraged to move between the three zones, dedicated listening, phone, and conversation, so as to get the most out of their afternoon listening. The new structure feels much like sitting in a Parisian cafe where art and culture are injected organically into everyday life, a feeling compounded by the many North Sydney passersby peering into the Independent’s big front windows.

There’s something about sitting with a coffee in front of you that works to break down the traditional and sometimes alienating barriers between contemporary audiences and classical musicians and the Enigma Quartet’s program proved a lovely taster for new listeners.

The first piece “String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13” by Felix Mendelssohn was a strong opener that quickly introduced the Romantic theme. Across the four movements there’s great tonal variety but the composition always returns to the contrast between a high violin (Marianne Edwards and Kerry Martin) dancing over the deeper resonances of cello (Rowena MacNeish) and viola (Elizabeth Woolnough). These juxtaposed tones added great drama and narrative interest, especially in a moment during the third movement where the viola and cello maintain a deep humming as the violin wails into the air. From here the Quartet twists and swells into a passionate sequence like a dark, romantic dance.

For the second piece, the Quartet pivoted to the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana and his piece “String Quartet No 1 in E Minor” titled “From My Life”. MacNeish explained that, when the piece was first composed, it was considered too difficult to play with the amount of double stops it contained but the four movements were meant to represent stages of Smetana’s life up until 1876. The first movement featured a viola solo like a seesaw moving up and down the scale before the tension is broken by a gentle soaring sound. This then grew thin and strained with repetition that drives the rhythm into the ground again. But the second movement, a polka, burst forth with a toing and froing, skipping beat that falls into extended rhythm as if by accident. This movement stands out for having a distinct sound quality as though the string instruments are producing flashes of sound, rising and fading in rapid succession.

Moving through his life, the third movement is meant to represent Smetana’s meeting his wife with a simple cello solo. Throughout the movement, instances of plucking, especially on the cello, injected an underlying frivolity to the romantic angst. But the final movement returned to an invigorating tone with a pleasant busyness to the tempo that seemed to capture the movement of a busy street with bustling shoppers. A piercing note from Edwards’s violin near the end of the piece is supposed to recreate the composer’s experience of the tinnitus that ultimately left him deaf and it definitely breaks through as a memorable moment from this musical biography.

The two chosen pieces, while quite different in style, complimented each other as examples of Romantic composition and worked well to cement the euro-cafe atmosphere for Cafe Culture. After the performance, while the coffee was still warm, audience members were invited to ask the Enigma Quartet questions from which we learned about their early days busking in Wynyard Station and their close personal bonds with their instruments. Another excellent strategy from the Independent Theatre to foster a sense of curious community around classical music and the musicians that play it.

Coffee and Romance was played at the Independent Theatre on March 14th

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