Sky’s the limit for Paris quartet

The Quatuor Diotima plays with fun and daring music-making ideas. Stephen Prins reports

Quite relaxed and happy after their lunch on the veranda of the Galle Face Hotel, the Quatuor Diotima – a group of four young musicians from France – was talking about venues and ambience. They were referring to the hotel’s grand ballroom, where they had given a resplendent performance of Schubert, Debussy and Smetana the previous evening. “Setting is very important for serious music, and you have a really wonderful setting here, in this hotel,” said violinist Vanessa Szigeti. “The hall is aesthetically pleasing, and it has an air of history – all very good for classical music.”

Quatuor Diotima – Franck Chevalier, Vanessa Szigeti, Yunpeng Zhao and Pierre Morlet. Photo: Mangala Weerasekera

We have attended a wedding or two in the hotel ballroom in the distant past, but the Quatuor Diotima concert (held late last year) was the first time we had sat in the hall specifically to hear music. The classic colonial look, with high ceiling, arches, moulded pillars, balustrades and chandeliers, felt just right for an evening of quality music. Best of all, the acoustics were excellent. It was remarkable how four string instruments filled the expansive hall and commanded attention from all four corners.

The Galle Face Hotel once upon a time, back in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, had its own orchestra, comprising Ceylonese and expat musicians, and they played both palm court music and serious classical music. The hotel orchestra played a role that would later be taken up by the Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka.
“The music projected well,” said violist Franck Chevalier. “We felt very comfortable playing here. And I should say the Colombo audience was among the best, most responsive, of audiences we have had on this trip.”

The Quatuor Diotima was on the final leg of a Far East-South Asian concert tour that had taken them as far as Bali. They were flying back to Paris that night. The other two members of the group were violinist Yunpeng Zhao and cellist Pierre Morlet.

The quartet is highly regarded in the West. They keep a gruelling concert schedule, travel widely, and have made a name as exciting exponents of contemporary music. Ms. Szigeti had joined the group only a month earlier, replacing one of the original violinists. Our first thought on seeing her name on the concert programme the night before was that she was likely related to the Hungarian concert violinist Joseph Szigeti. We asked her backstage after the concert, and she said yes. Curiously, none of the other three members of the ensemble was aware of the fact, or had thought to ask her that obvious question. “Are you really related to the great Joseph Szigeti?” asked Franck Chevalier, turning to Ms. Szigeti in surprise. “I never knew that.”

“Well, now you do!” Ms. Szigeti laughed. She said she was a great-grand-niece of the famous violinist, and that most members of the family were wedded to the violin. The Szigetis, originating in Transylvania, spread out across Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Vanessa Szigeti was born and educated in France.

The group was interested to learn that Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) visited Ceylon in 1938, and gave a recital with the Georgian-Russian pianist Nikita Magaloff. The venue was the Regal Theatre, in the Fort. It was a concert Mother often talked about. She was a 19-year-old violin student at the time, and that was the first public violin recital she had attended. We found the old concert programme, a single sheet folded down the middle, in Mother’s wardrobe after her death.

It occurred to us that the Regal, with its heavy and ornate theatre look, complete with opera boxes, was another fitting setting for serious music. The aristocratic aura and trappings of colonial-era interiors lend themselves gracefully to quality music and art,

Thanks to old Joseph Szigeti recordings, we became familiar with key works in the concert violin repertoire, such as the Prokofiev Violin Concerto in D (recorded in 1935). And the Nikita Magaloff 1954 recording of the Liszt Sonata for Piano in B minor is a treasured item in the family record cabinet. (Nikita Magaloff was Joseph Szigeti’s son-in-law.)

Joseph Szigeti championed the new music of his time. The Quatuor Diotima sees itself primarily as advocates of new music. During the concert intermission the previous night, the musicians had two of their CDs out for sale, one of classical works, one of contemporary music. We reached out for the 20th-century – works by American composers Steve Reich, Samuel Barber and George Crumb.

We suggested to the Quatuor Diotima that if they liked the Galle Face Hotel ballroom that much as a venue, they should come back and give another concert. “We’d love to come back and give concerts,” beamed Ms. Szigeti. “Maybe we could have a music festival here, and invite our musician friends in Europe to come and perform.” Her friends smiled in response, warming to the idea.

We asked the avant-garde musicians whether they had ever played, or had plans to play, what must be the most far-out work in the chamber music repertory – Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Helikopter-Streichquartette, a work for string quartet, four helicopters and their pilots. The world premiere took place in Amsterdam on June 26, 1995. The performers were the Arditti Quartet, comprising, among others, the Sri Lankan cellist Rohan de Saram. Present at the premiere were leading composers and music critics, who all reacted variously to the event, describing it as a “bizarre achievement”, a “memorable spectacle”, a “grandiose absurdist entertainment”, a “superb work of a genius.”

The work requires each member of the quartet to climb aboard a helicopter with their music instruments and, once airborne, perform from a score prepared for the occasion. The sounds of the instruments mix with the sounds of the helicopter and its rotor blades, and these are electronically transmitted to a sound technician on the ground, who broadcasts the results to the spectators through loudspeakers. The event is tracked by TV cameras and shown on a bank of big screens.

The idea of the helicopter quartet came to the composer in a dream. The work must be the most imaginatively daring of any contemporary composer. (Stockhausen, who died in 2007, will also be remembered for his notorious comment that the destruction of the twin towers in the terrorist attack on New York in ’93 was “the greatest work of art that is possible in the cosmos”. He apologised soon after, explaining that what he had meant to say was that it was “Lucifer’s greatest work of art.”)

“No, we haven’t done the Helicopter Quartet, but what a fabulous idea – to do it here!” enthused Ms. Szigeti. “The festival can spill out from the ballroom onto the Galle Face Green. It could be a big public show. But where would you find the helicopters?”

We said we had friends who had friends who in turn had friends who moved about in helicopters. Assem-bling four choppers on the Galle Face Green for Asia’s first performance of Stockhausen’s signature opus should not be an insurmountable challenge.

The idea seemed to galvanise the Quatuor Diotima, who were all smiles and twinkling eyes. We like to think they boarded their plane that night with soaring plans for a return visit. Sri Lanka is on the cusp of exciting creative times, and we hear the engines of cutting-edge artistic enterprise revving powerfully on all sides.

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