“This group of musicians has a collective wisdom and maturity which is singularly impressive … Affinity is a musical force with which to be reckoned.” Richard Gill OAM
Nicholas Waters, violin, Ioana Tache, violin, William Clark, viola, and Mee Na Lojewski, cello, comprise what is one of the most exciting young ensembles to make their mark on Melbourne’s classical music scene. Gifted, enterprising and committed, they almost provide a template for what it takes to succeed artistically and make a living in a challenging musical environment. Freelance musicians certainly deserve all the support we can give them.
Mee Na Lojewski also proved herself to be a supremely articulate spokesperson for the Quartet when responding to my questions.
You must be thrilled to have such a glowing recommendation from the late, great Richard Gill. How much have you worked with him over the years?
I knew Richard Gill in my early 20s as a member of Sydney Symphony Sinfonia, where he was Artistic Director and Advisor. I remember his advice very clearly and there is no doubt he shaped my musical endeavors. Richard instilled in us young musicians the responsibility we have to introduce a wide range of music to willing listeners, and also to the not-so-willing. One of his encouragements was, “Do not under-estimate the power you have as a musician. You do have the power to change lives.”
Richard Gill was truly unique in his devotion to nurturing young musicians. He knew he could make a difference to our futures and he was incredibly generous with his recommendations. Affinity Quartet approached Richard Gill when we were planning our first International Tour in 2015. At that time he was our Choir Director at ANAM. He gave us his support and really encouraged us to want to become a distinctive ensemble in the Australian music scene.
When, how and why was Affinity Quartet formed? How long has your core group been together?
Our quartet first began when we were students of the Australian National Academy of Music. Over five years since then, the core group has evolved out of a shared love of this medium. We had some great opportunities early on – winning the ANAM Chamber Music Competition, being accepted into the prestigious International Musicians Seminar at Prussia Cove UK, performing with violist and composer Brett Dean in Berlin. These experiences and our 2016 tour opened our eyes and ears and whet our appetite. Three of us in Affinity Quartet today are its founding members and Ioana Tache joined at the end of 2017 bringing her love and knowledge of the medium. It’s become a really enjoyable shared endeavor for us all.
How do you choose artists with whom to collaborate? Are they always instrumentalists?
The exciting thing about playing as a string quartet is that it is very much a living and collaborative medium. It is best experienced in live performance, but as well as that the string quartet constantly evolves in the hands of new composers. Over its experimental history, it has been heard as an electric string quartet, with percussion, expanded into a quintet, sextet, and even as a double string quartet. In 2020 we are excited to include a new commission by Australian composer Matthew Laing for Affinity Quartet and UK-based mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean. Alongside this new work, in collaboration with Lotte we will perform diverse repertoire from Brahms to Nico Muhly. It’s been a real hoot to explore some of this repertoire with Lotte over the past month while she’s been in Australia. It’s developing as a program that combines the literary, theatrical and musical.
In what other musical performances are members of the Quartet involved?
Unlike our European and American counterparts, Australian string quartets like ourselves can’t rely on Universities, Institutions and Festivals for very frequent chamber music opportunities, fellowships, or a full-time touring livelihood. So we manage to maintain our core group and livelihoods through a balance between freelancing and Affinity Quartet engagements. The scheduling of this is quite an administrative task! But we are lucky to each be playing regularly with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and other Victorian ensembles, which has meant we can base ourselves in Melbourne. The past week has seen Nick touring with Flinders Quartet to regional NSW, William working with MSO and skiing in Queenstown, Ioana performing with Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, and Mee Na on tour with Australian World Orchestra. This kind of life isn’t for everyone, but it does make our string quartet life together possible.
I see Affinity Quartet is about to undertake a second international tour in early 2020. This includes residency in the 2020 Amsterdam String Quartet Biennale and a series of concerts and premières of new works in collaboration with Australian artists in the UK and Europe. These tours must bring a variety of special benefits to you as individuals, Quartet members and to Australian cultural life. What do you see as the main ones?
The four of us believe it’s necessary to travel overseas to pursue and hone our practice. Europe is the birthplace of string quartet and its history and culture is especially enticing to us. We want to dedicate ourselves to achieving the highest possible standards. Also, to be honest, in five weeks overseas Affinity Quartet is fortunate to be lining up a series of engagements that would be very unlikely in the same period here in Australia. Touring intensively also means we live inside each other’s pockets for a while, developing a deeper camaraderie and respect, the balance of which is vital to any lasting professional endeavour.
An equally important benefit of touring is the Australian cultural publicity aspect. We will be proud to showcase Australian music in Salzburg, Italy, London and Amsterdam. At the Amsterdam String Quartet Biennale, we will be the only Australian string quartet in residence. In London, we will represent Australia in the St Martin-in-the-Fields Embassy Series. Opportunities like this are really thrilling to us and we expect this tour will enrich us in ways that we will bring back home. I think we owe it to the memory of Richard Gill and to future generations to encourage even more dynamism, quality and commitment to chamber music here in Australia amongst musicians, presenters, audiences and patrons alike.
How do you manage to fund such an undertaking?
Funding for any artists or art forms is rarely guaranteed, and very much needed. Sometimes here in Australia it is easy to feel that the public values cultural activities of the highest quality but forgets these cannot continue to happen without significant financial backing. For chamber music artists it is particularly tough to make a livelihood. For an international project such as this one Affinity Quartet needs funding – we look to the Australian government, to philanthropic trusts, to crowd-funding, and our own fundraising efforts to meet the costs. We await news of our funding applications with bated breath. We are very lucky to have at least 20 generous private donors and friends who have already pledged a few hundred dollars through to thousands of dollars to help us. Anyone who would like to support us can do so via Affinity Quartet’s Tour Campaign through the Australian Cultural Fund where any amount above $2 is most welcome – https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/affinity-quartet-2020/
What’s next on the Quartet’s calendar, apart from the overseas tour?
Affinity Quartet continues our NEXUS series in Melbourne and regional Victoria exploring diverse histories of the string quartet. In September and November we’re performing Beethoven’s Razumovsky Quartet no.1 and Bartók’s String Quartet no.3 in a series of self-presented concerts in conjunction with some very cool venues: Guildford Vineyard & Cellar Door in the Goldfields region of Victoria; Kennedy Nolan, a Fitzroy architect studio; Medley Hall, a 19th century venue in Carlton; and a Yarra Valley home built by architect Alastair Knox. In 2020 Affinity Quartet is thrilled to debut as Local Heroes at Melbourne Recital Centre. And after our overseas tour, of course we’ll be presenting more concerts in Victoria, Tasmania and NSW.