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Mother, why do we play?

On the journey of life people ask themselves the most existential of questions. For musicians, perhaps the most fundamental question is plain, but not so simple: why do we make music? With a fair bit of hindsight and just a pinch of Hineininterpretierung, one could say that the St. George Quintet was created to find and give an answer to this calling. After digging into the repertoire of some British legends and traveling through distant, Bohemian lands, the Belgian ensemble replies as it sees fit. “One of the reasons why I play music is to develop my powers as a human being”, says he. In close harmony, she sounds thus: “By devoting myself to art, I hope I can grow and other people can grow as well …”

muziek in de kapel partner van Klassiek Centraal

It all started with two close friends in the Flanders Symphony Orchestra wanting to play chamber music together. Perhaps not the most obvious decision for double bass player Bram Decroix, but nevertheless cellist Wouter Vercruysse was – of course – all ears. Finding some good matches to complement the group didn’t always turn out to be easy. First Bram brought in Dutch viola player Marie-Louise de Jong and together with Wouter they convinced violinist Liesbeth Baelus to join the adventure. Liesbeth in turn knew Kaja Nowak had just arrived in Brussels, so once in Belgium Kaja eventually took up the position of second violin.

Inspired by girl power the St. George Quintet was able to celebrate its first successes. After winning the Supernova prize in 2016 and subsequently recording their debut album British Legends, the Georgians decided to go on a trip to the Czech Republic. In June 2017 they boarded the so-called Dvořák Express: the train connecting Prague and Brno, the respective cities of Antonin Dvořák and Leoš Janáček. This journey not only offered the opportunity to talk to locals and learn more about the relation to their cultural heritage. The purpose was also to shoot a video which was going to be used in concerts, projecting cinematic impressions of the trip in between the pieces.

February 12th 2019. Ultimately, the Quintet’s Eastern European experience culminated into a second CD. Together with the festive release of Bohemia Express, the ensemble – presenting itself with Diede Verpoest as the new viola player – performed this captivating combination of live music and film at the Miry Concert Hall in Ghent. It worked out wonderfully well. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening were the encores. Janáček and Dvořák gave rise to an arrangement of famous songs by Queen which proved to be an appropriate finale for this Bohemian Rhapsody.

Just over two months later in sun-drenched Brussels, heading up the stairs next to the taproom of the Brussels Beer Project, Kaja Nowak is giving me a warm welcome in her cosy apartment on the first floor. Wouter Vercruysse is already waiting in the living room; he brought his laptop with him. Soon it will become clear that he prepared our conversation quite thoroughly. And so did the lady of the house, be it in a different and tastier way. Kramiek (raisin bread, Ed.) and a variety of Polish pastries: the surprise offering looks mouth-watering. But before we indulge ourselves, let’s talk beauty and music first.

Considering the name of the St. George Quintet, which the ensemble derived from the 19th century Franco-British composer George Onslow, it is quite surprising that also on your second album no music from the so-called ‘French Beethoven’ was recorded. How come?

Wouter Vercruysse: It’s really in our DNA to have this long-term project plan to record the Onslow string quintets. But the idea of the Bohemia Express popped up very spontaneously. Immediately, all members of the group were enthusiastic. And since I have the ability to sell things that do not exist yet (laughter and consent), I pitched some concert organisers and they also fell in love with the concept. So this became a priority. Originally, this was just a video and a concert project. The album only came afterwards. I vividly remember discussions about the difficulties with the Dvořák quintet (opus 77), which is a demanding piece to perform, but in the end we decided that it’s now or never if we want to put it on CD.

Kaja Nowak: We worked hard on it because of the concerts, so it seemed only natural to do a recording as well. Still the Onslow is an idea that we will definitely take up at some point in time. But I’m not sure we already figured out completely what to program the Onslow with in concerts, while we need these to try out and experiment with different interpretations and see how it turns out. Of course we can play his music, but we are still thinking about an attractive format. An option we are considering right now, is to couple the so-called ‘French Beethoven’ with the string quintet of the real Beethoven and to also combine it with fragments from Tolstoys The Kreutzer Sonata. But that’s not easy to realise because of the length of both these works.

Instead of choosing Onslow, the Quintet in 2017 went on a road trip to the Czech Republic to find inspiration before deciding to record its new album with works by Dvořák and also Janáček. Where did the idea to turn this trip into a performance with live music and video originate?

Vercruysse: We see it as our mission to broaden up audiences for classical music by trying out different setups. That’s why we were also looking for a new way to put the spotlight on the Dvořák quintet. We had the idea to turn the program notes into a screening, thereby interviewing some very interesting musicologists and musicians in both Prague and Brno. By showing a video before and sometimes during the different movements of the music, we also wanted to give the audience a glance at the context and the country in which these composers worked. At the same time, while getting a glimpse behind the scenes, the general public also gets to know us better as well, turning the concert into a more personal experience.

Nowak: The movie really fulfilled its role as something that brings the music to people who do not normally listen to classical music. We received quite a lot of enthusiastic reactions from the public. The alternation between movie and music makes the pieces more accessible, something many people appreciated.

Where did the eagerness to engage with Eastern European music come from?

Nowak: Shall I give the pragmatic answer? The thing is that the quintet by Dvořák is probably the most famous piece to play in our configuration of string quartet with double bass. This piece was the starting point and also the first work we ever performed as a group. After that, we looked for something that could match nicely with it. It is then that we found this incredible Janáček, also a good friend of Dvořák, and the Suk. I think we are also really emotionally attached to the Suk: a small piece that has something very special to it. It’s very imaginative, almost like poetry.

Vercruysse: Josef Suk, the son-in-law of Dvořák, wrote his Meditation on the Old Czech Chorale ‘St. Wenceslas’ (opus 35a) as a tribute to the patron saint of the Kingdom of Bohemia, the largest historical region of the country. In Prague you see quite many statues of him. At the outbreak of the First World War, Bohemia was still a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Therefore, every concert had to start with the imperial hymn: the well-known God Save Emperor Francis, put to music by Haydn. Suk composed and added to the programme a new Bohemian anthem. It was a sort of protest song, be it a fragile one, against Habsburg imperialism, inspiring feelings of emancipation.

How did Lars Konings, the director of the movie, get on board the Bohemia Express?

Nowak: He is actually a musician first of all. And that is how he met our previous viola player Marie-Louise de Jong who features in the movie (the current viola player of the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam, Ed.). They studied together at the conservatory of Maastricht. He is a really able pianist. As a hobby he started to get into moviemaking and began to take it more and more seriously. In the end it became his profession.

Vercruysse: We got to know Lars as a very passionate producer of artist videos for our first album, British Legends. It was such a big pleasure to work with him, that we invited him to join us on the Bohemia Express, which was a more considerable project. As a musically oriented moviemaker he was part of the conception of the programme, but at the same time also handled the camera.

What becomes apparent during the travel report is the importance of folk music, and folk songs in particular, when it comes to understanding the compositions of both Janáček and Dvořák. How big is the challenge for a Belgian ensemble to come to grips with these folkloristic idioms?

Vercruysse: It is a big challenge, especially if you want to get in touch with the folkloristic core of the music. Even more because Moravian and Bohemian folk songs are very local and not as widely spread as is the Scottish or Irish folk tradition for instance. But on the other hand it’s already a bit filtered because it still is classical music. The music itself forms a bridge. The language is tonal and therefore more are less what we are used to. Nevertheless, we were very happy to receive coaching by Pavel Fischer, the former primarius of the Škampa Quartet and a very active Moravian folk fiddler. He emphasised the importance of both intonation and accents in the Czech language, having a big influence on how the music of Dvořák and Janáček should be played. He made us recite it more than sing it, which was truly revelatory to us.

Kaja, could it be easier for a violinist with a Polish background – or the Pavel Haas Quartet for that matter – to empathise with this music?

Nowak: In a way I do feel close to the music in my heart, especially because I come from a neighbouring region. But on the other hand there are all the details that we just mentioned that are different. Polish and Czech culture have a lot in common, and I understand a little bit of the Czech language as well, but both countries are still different enough. That is why these lessons with Pavel Fisher were incredibly interesting, also to me.

Vercruysse: In the end, it depends on your education too. When you are trained, as we were, in the Franco-German or Russian interpretative tradition, it’s something very different from the fiddle scene you encounter in the Czech Republic. On our trip we were very surprised to learn that the music there is part of their daily life. It’s not something that is hidden in a music school classroom, but rather something organic. Many people, from kids to the elderly, sang and knew folk songs!   

Compared to Belgium or the Netherlands for example, the Czech Republic produced quite a lot of famous composers. Is this just mere coincidence, or is there something special to be found in the Moldau apart from the death fish mentioned by Wouter in the movie?

Vercruysse: This is a question I asked myself a lot already in the past, and for which I made up a theory. Observing history, I noticed that the emergence of cultural capital coincides with big and powerful societies. When the Burgundian realm was at its peak, Flanders took up a prominent place in the Burgundy, and it also generated a lot of famous composers and painters. During the classical and early romantic cultural era the Habsburg Monarchy was dominant in Europe. Vienna was really the place to be. It attracted or produced the big three: Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. I also believe it is not a coincidence that Bach had a definite breakthrough only hundred years after his death. This moment coincided with the rise of Prussian power, resulting also in an interest for national heritage. In the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, Bohemia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Cities like Brno and Prague were very close to the cultural magnet that was Vienna and certainly benefited from that. Mozart often visited in Prague and had his biggest successes there. In the second half of the 19th century the music of Smetana, and especially his operas that were written in the Czech language, gave rise to a national cultural awareness. The Austrian rulers were liberal enough to tolerate this evolution, which was then continued by others like Dvořák, Janáček and Suk. After the Great War, with the independence of Czechoslovakia, Brno and Prague flourished. The country became one of the richest in the world, and it consolidated the legacy of their biggest composers by exporting their music as a national cultural product. At the same time, music was just as much a very important part of identity. But this unfortunately came to an end when first the Nazis and afterwards the Soviets took control. Martinů was actually the last Czech composer that became famous internationally.

Nowak: That’s why I think that talent is to be found everywhere, but is has to be nurtured. When there is no money, it’s difficult to provide education. An artist could find it difficult to admit, but in the history of humankind the interaction between culture and power has been a very important one. And it still is up to this day.

Also in the movie, one of the male interviewees considers the music of Dvořák as a “symbol of the internationalisation of our music.” At the same time, the roots of this music are essential to its existence … Do you have an explanation for this interesting paradox?

Nowak: It’s interesting to compare Dvořák and Janáček. Although Dvořák became famous for drawing on Czech folklore, he was also deeply rooted in the classical language of his Viennese predecessors and you can hear it even in the most folk-like of his works. Janáček, using folksongs, would literally quote them instead of reworking them to fit classical sonata phrases. He went much further in reinventing his musical language and breaking with the classical structure. In a way this might mean that Dvořák’s music, as it is closer to the classical forms, is more accessible for Western Europeans, while Janáček’s work might take more listening time to understand it.

Vercruysse: As a young composer, Dvořák did not have much success in Vienna because he was a kind of wannabe Brahms. But abroad people where not interested in a copycat, so he had to find his own voice. The moment he started to find inspiration in Czech folklore, his music got picked up abroad. The Slavonic Dances became his biggest hit and breakthrough, even though they were just a bit folky and Dvořák actually invented the melodies himself. According to the renowned Dvořák scholar David Beveridge, whom we also interviewed, the string quintet was a landmark in this respect, because it was one of the first works in which he deliberately incorporated tunes in a folky style. 

A moment in the reportage that I liked very much, is when the five of you are discussing what is the most important when playing music, and Wouter shouts out: “emotion has to come first!” But then, as Kaja also puts it in the promotional video for your new CD (see below): “of course you have to use your brain as well.” How do you reconcile heart and mind when playing music?

Vercruysse: You are talking to two very instinctive players, so maybe we are not the ones you should ask this question (laughter). But I gave it a thought and I’m convinced that heart and mind reconcile in reaching a higher level of consciousness. Actually, one of the reasons why I play music is to develop my powers as a human being, so to speak.

Nowak: Yes, I can really relate to that! Because it’s such a tricky balance between emotion and rationality. And we often struggle with it. When you attempt to focus on some details of the score, you sometimes end up playing very coldly. On the other hand, the whole thing can also collapse when you try to play more from the heart. But there is this kind of third perspective, where you allow yourself to do both. To give a simple example, sometimes you practice something slowly.     You are concentrating on a technical aspect, but are feeling stuck. At that point, it frees you up when you try to think more musically. I was talking with someone recently about the concept of affects in music. In the Baroque era, as a musician you had to reproduce them and achieve the desired effect on people: there was no talk of feeling the emotion yourself in performance. Apparently, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach was the first to say that in order to reproduce the emotion, you have to understand and feel it. At that time, the notion of the musician as an emotional being appeared. But this discussion is still going on today. In a way, the mind is not just something that analyses and calculates, but it’s also a creative tool. You have to make your mind work to come up with all these emotions based on the music you have in front of you. That’s why both function in close harmony. So in the end I don’t consider this opposition to be a problem. If you can combine heart and mind, there is an added quality.

In the penultimate scene of the movie, it becomes clear to Wouter that the group has discovered something during this fascinating trip through Bohemia and Moravia. What you have learned, is actually an answer to perhaps the most important question an ensemble can ask oneself: why do we play? What is the answer to this existential question according to the St. George Quintet?

Nowak: It’s a very important and relevant question: people want to know why we do this, why we make music. In the trailer we made for British Legends, I got the exact same question from Lars Konings and the answer is there in the movie – (from 5:15 onwards, Ed.). What I say in the movie is that I think making music develops you enormously. It helps you to become more sensitive and more disciplined. It helps build your character. To measure yourself against the greatness of the music, makes you humble and work on yourself and hopefully also on your connection with other people. For me, that’s one of the most important, if not the most important thing about art: the expression of feelings that we all share. It’s not subjective; it’s the mysterious, unexplained feeling which the first people poured into their drawings in the caves and which will never stop to inspire us with joy, awe and fear. It is something incredibly beautiful and touching that is common to all humankind. So by devoting myself to art, I hope I can grow in understanding and compassion and other people can grow as well…

The recording of Bohemia Express is a particular story in itself. I found out that the ensemble organised a crowdfunding campaign and received the support of some unfamiliar organisations like Beeldenstorm for example. How did the production come about? Was it any different compared to the first CD you made?

Nowak: Beeldenstorm deserves a good mention, because it’s a fantastic non-profit organisation. Nik Honinckx, the director, is incredibly supportive of the arts. Maybe you can write an article about him too?

Vercruysse: It’s a Dutch-speaking community centre in Kuregem. They support a lot of classical music productions and work very closely together with Etcetera Records. Their financial help for our project was really welcome, and we were also happy to rehearse there.

Nowak: We made our first album soon after we became one of the three laureates of Supernova in 2016. We got support from both Concertgebouw Brugge and Klara. The CD was produced together with Pavane Records. For our second album we decided we wanted to have total artistic freedom on what to record, where to do it, how to design the cover and so on. So we took it entirely into our own hands.

Vercruysse: One of the things we really wanted to do was to record the CD at the conservatory of Brussels, and we also wanted to choose the producer ourselves. Rachel Smith is one of the most famous producers in England. She wins prizes every single year. It was really a privilege for us to work with her. She’s extremely good in what she does.

Nowak: We also felt this in the recording, which went very smoothly, I think. She’s very good at giving feedback. Because it’s kind of a tricky business. You want a producer pointing out all the necessary details, but some things cannot be changed anymore. So someone who is too picky or opinionated is going to create tensions. You really need to know when to guide and when to loosen your grip. At the same time, you also have to be very confident in communicating when you have a good take. This is not easy when you’re working with five people who each of them want to record just one extra take to be sure they’ve played well (laughter).

In the end, how important is perfectionism for a musician? Because it has something devilish about it … Actually, it’s not what people want to hear or look for.

Nowak: It’s true that technique is a means to an end and you always have to remember that. If you only concentrate on this, things do get extremely boring. But on the other hand, you need to have a certain level of skill to get the message across. Otherwise it puts people off.

Vercruysse: Because of recordings and high-quality streaming people are also getting used to virtual circumstances. That’s why we think the audience does want to hear something perfect. Luckily, I once got a confession by the world-renowned cellist Yo Yo Ma. “You know, Wouter, when I get really anxious”, he told me. “When I’m playing a concert, I’m getting towards the end … and I haven’t played any mistake yet.” And he added: “For me it’s really relaxing to make a mistake right at the beginning or in the middle of a concert. So that’s over with!”

Who made the beautiful drawing on the cover of the album? 

Vercruysse: The drawing was made by Jan-Sebastiaan Degeyter, an artist from Bruges who lives and works in Ghent. He had done work on CD-covers before and we really liked the result. We gave him some suggestions about what we wanted and we were very happy with what he did. The inlay of the album was also made by him. You can see some details from the places we visited during our Bohemian trip: Prague, the house of Dvořák in Nelahozeves, the folk festival, …

Nowak: And all of this through a big train window (laughter).

As Ralph Waldo Emerson might have said or thought once: “life is a journey, not a destination.” Still, what will be the next destination of the Georgians, the next project you would love to embark on?

Vercruysse: Am I allowed to daydream on this beautiful day? I would very much like to go to Argentina and create a story about Buenos Aires and Astor Piazzolla. But probably, and more realistically, we’ll go with the connection of Onslow and Beethoven about which we talked at the beginning of our interview.

Kaja, Wouter, Liesbeth, Diede and Bram: may Saint George be with you. Always! 

  • WHAT: Interview with Kaja Nowak and Wouter Vercruysse, second violinist and cellist of the St. George Quintet, on the occasion of their latest recording Bohemia Express, and the related concert performance which took place on February 12th 2019 in the Miry Concert Hall in Ghent.
  • WHO: St. George Quintet [Liesbeth Baelus and Kaja Nowak (violin), Diede Verpoest (viola), Wouter Vercruysse (cello) and Bram Decroix (double bass)]
  • WEBSITE: https://www.stgeorgequintet.com/
  • PHOTO’S: © Lars Konings | Filip Verpoest


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