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The Experience Factor - What's Best for Exciting Performances?


Strings attached

Guardian News

Some musicians like nothing better than to settle down for decades in a chamber ensemble. Others prefer to pick and choose. Who gets the better deal? William Howard and Steven Isserlis compare notes

The 25-year stalwart
William Howard, pianist and founder of the Schubert Ensemble

I met a festival director recently who has a policy of never booking established chamber groups. The best way to get exciting performances, he claims, is to put individual players together for a particular concert. Such a view is not, fortunately, shared by all promoters - but even so, it is a challenge to an ensemble such as ours, which is celebrating its 25th birthday this year.

Spontaneous concerts can be very exciting - and all of us in the Schubert Ensemble enjoy the opportunity to play with others in this way - but I would challenge the view that long-term musical relationships inevitably lead to dull performances. When I think of the most memorable chamber concerts I've heard, I think of the Amadeus Quartet bringing their glorious years of experience to Haydn and Mozart, or the Smetana Quartet at the end of their career giving electrifying performances, by heart, of the Smetana and Janácek quartets.

I sometimes wonder if part of the excitement of one-off performances is caused by a sense of precariousness that can be communicated - often as something quite positive - from players to audience. But for an ensemble to take real risks in a concert, they need to have a history of performing the music together regularly. As any connoisseur of football knows, imaginative and flowing play is more likely to come from a finely honed club team than from a national team of star players who have had little time to train together. When a concert goes well for us, we can achieve what an audience member once described as "group bungee jumping" - the feeling that you can take a performance to its limits and trust everyone else will come with you. ...

The fly-by-night
Steven Isserlis, cellist

One of my favourite musical activities is organising chamber music concerts. Since I spend most of my time playing concertos with orchestra or recitals with piano, the groups I work with are almost invariably one-offs - one-night stands, so to speak. It is exciting, enjoyable - and challenging.

Nowadays, I am very careful only to work with trusted friends and colleagues. It is essential that we get along personally, as well as musically. Actually, the two are related: everyone knows the feeling of being introduced to a stranger and finding you have absolutely nothing to say to them. The same applies in music; you can play chamber music with someone, and feel that you are playing a completely different piece - no conversation is taking place. ...

Read more about this at the Guardian News website:,,2262784,00.html