Solem Quartet is Amy Tress (violin), William Newell (violin), Stephen Upshaw (viola) and Stephanie Tress (cello)
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?
None of us was born into a family where music was a profession, but where it was a hobby or interest, and part of daily life. My mum played the piano at home, and at her local church which undoubtedly granted me a love for harmony and melody (as well as communal music making) via songs and hymns. So as well as taking me to lessons and rehearsals and encouraging practice, she was able to accompany me as a young violinist – giving me a firm footing in ensemble playing. Family support is so crucial to creating a young musician.
We were each truly drawn to chamber music as teenagers. On a music course, I vividly remember watching Levon Chillingirian lead a performance of the Mendelssohn Octet; I couldn’t believe how thrilling it was. I often think it is underestimated how important it is to see as well as hear live music. On that same course was my first experience of playing in a real string quartet. We played Mozart, the Dissonance (though the dissonances were probably just painful rather than toe-curlingly beautiful) and I’m sure we put the Death in Schubert’s Death and the Maiden – but it was properly life changing.
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
We’re very proud of our debut album, The Four Quarters, released with Orchid Classics. When we decided we wanted to make an album – a project which grew out of a year of lockdown. From the outset, we wanted to do something that reflected our beliefs as a quartet: bringing together contemporary music and traditional repertoire served in a new context.
We decided we wanted to record Thomas Adés’ The Four Quarters, a work we have spent lots of time with, and an extraordinarily magical and touching journey in four movements through the course of one day. Using this as a framework for the album, we handpicked several short individual pieces, some in a new arrangement made by us, to take the listener through the journey of the day, as the light and temperature change and different scenes appear. The album features works by living composers Cassandra Miller, William Marsey, Aaron Parker (as well as Adés), alongside pieces by Purcell, Florence Price, Schumann, Bartók, Gurney and even Kate Bush.
It has been quite a journey devising, recording, editing, and promoting the album and we have learnt a huge amount. It feels strange to have made something that will outlast us! But it is a huge privilege as well. We are hugely grateful to everyone involved – particularly Aaron Holloway-Nahum our producer – and all of our supporters, too lengthy to name here
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It sounds deceivingly simple, but just making our quartet life run smoothly as four independent musicians is the ongoing challenge we face. Playing quartets, where we constantly think about micro and the macro, is in itself a metaphor for quartet life.
We have to think about the detail: have I got my concert dress, who’s answered that email, how are we travelling, how many nights are we staying, who’s driving, who’s speaking in this concert? For much of this we are deeply indebted to our agent – but it still takes time and energy!
We must also constantly think about balance: between work and life, between quartet work and work elsewhere; balancing our repertoire choices; balancing our rehearsal schedule between fixing small details and allowing time for the bigger picture; and giving an equal appreciation for each others’ ideas.
And most importantly, we have to think about sound: good communication is key to making the quartet relationship work, and good relationships rely on everyone having room to talk –sometimes to air their grievances and sometimes to provide much needed encouragement!
It’s rarely straightforward but we make it work the best we can – and we enjoy each other’s company especially over a meal and glass of wine which helps! With our first quartet baby on the way there will undoubtedly more exciting challenges ahead…!
Which particular works do you think you perform best?
Our repertoire is vast – it is one of the reasons the four of us love playing quartets. We play music from all eras, and especially enjoy playing traditional repertoire alongside contemporary music. But one composer whose works we return to again and again is Bartók.
His quartets are full of music of extraordinary depth, energy, and vigour – and are also an incredible academic challenge. His music speaks to exactly what the string quartet is capable of: music making between four equal voices giving their all.
As in our album, we pride ourselves on bringing something new to traditional repertoire, and presenting new works in an engaging way. Audiences are often intimidated by Bartók, which can at times feel like an alien world to a new listener, so we like to give them a helping hand. By performing his work alongside other works, new and old, with a unifying link, as we have in our Beethoven Bartók Now project – we find audiences are not only willing to enter the journey with us, but also leave Bartók converts!
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Beethoven Bartók Now has given us a helpful structure in planning our seasons – though we often have lots of music on our plates for all sorts of projects. We are currently buried in the deeply spiritual Vasks quartets plus new commissions for the Vale of Glamorgan Festival; the monumental Beethoven op 127 and Bartók 4 for performances in the autumn; and refreshing pieces from our album The Four Quarters for an appearance on BBC Radio 3 In Tune on September 15th.
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
We have been fortunate to play in many fantastic venues around the world from the Wigmore Hall to the Hangzhou Grand Theatre, to hidden gems in the UK like the Community Church in Macynlleth, West Wales. All of these venues have their own special atmosphere, enhanced by a gorgeous and generous acoustic.
We love returning to Aberystwyth MusicFest every year, where a devoted audience and collection of brilliant musicians create a week of joyous music making. And we can’t wait to play in the opening concert of the brand new Tung Auditorium at Liverpool University where we are Ensemble in Residence.
We also love taking music to less traditional venues to find new audiences, like the Bussey Building or Soup Kitchen Manchester as we did in 2019 with batózeyal playing music for string quartet + electronics in nightclubs, or when we performed The Lobster: Live in historical Picturehouse Cinemas.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
Firstly, to ensure every child has the opportunity to learn an instrument and perform, and discover an addiction to music.
Secondly, to find audiences who get genuinely excited about contemporary music. There is a huge audience for contemporary art and millions of people listen to contemporary music every day…but on Radio 1 rather than Radio 3. We believe there is something of an untapped market – and are working hard to appeal to them. By getting people excited about the classical music of their time through engaging performance and online platforms, we believe we can bring a new audience through the door of the concert hall.
And thirdly we feel it is important to give audiences a helping hand…the repertoire we play becomes more interesting and easier to enjoy when you know something about it – whether that be something about the composer, or how the piece breaks the traditional mould, or what was happening politically while the piece was composed. So talking to the audience is key. We believe that, without talking down to people, there are ways to present music that allow people to feel comfortable, rather than restrained or uninvited. As part of Beethoven Bartók Now, we have created mini-documentaries to give audiences an insight into the pieces behind each programme.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
A power cut which caused the lights going out at the end of first movement of Mendelssohn op 12! We were deep in the coda section of the movement with about 45 seconds of the piece left…amazingly nobody in the audience reacted to the dramatic change of scenery. Performing from memory is always a fine balance of risk and fun, but when it’s forced upon you it becomes in equal parts nerve-wracking and exhilarating. We powered to the end in the darkness and as we dissolved the tension with the final cadence there was a roar of thunderous approval from the audience for our inadvertent piece of performance art.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring
Keep going, keep practising, keep listening! (And to any string player: play quartets).
What is your most treasured possession?
It’s cheesy, but – our instruments. There is something magical about our four instruments playing a chord together – ringing in one harmonic world, resonating with each other. It is completely addictive.
Amy plays a composite Andrea Guarneri violin from 1863
Will plays an English violin by the Voller Brothers (master copiers, or perhaps forgers), built at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Stephen plays a Daniel Parker school viola from 1715
Steph plays an 1820 Thomas Kennedy cello
The Four Quartets is available now on the Orchid Classics label. Read a review here
Praised for their “cultured tone” (Arts Desk), the Solem Quartet has established itself as one of the most innovative and adventurous quartets of its generation. A 2020 awardee of the Jerwood Arts Live Work Fund, one of 33 artists selected from more than 1200 applicants, the Solem Quartet takes its place amongst some of the UK’s brightest artistic voices, with award recipients spread across practices including music, theatre, opera, circus, dance, live art and performance.