The De Kooning Ensemble is: Jessica Meakin (violin), Freya Hicks (viola), Evie Coplan
(cello) and Lewis Bell (piano)
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?
Over the years there have been so many people who we have been inspired by and although we all come from different backgrounds (and ends of the country!), we have unitedly found that playing alongside friends and peers was a big factor in pursuing a career in music and for all of us felt it was the only natural path! During our studies at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD), individually we met so many other students who valued music in the same way and it was through collaboration and joint passion that The De Kooning Ensemble was formed.
We all started learning to play our instruments between the ages of four and seven, and so music has been part of our lives for as long as we can remember. We all had different initial experiences; Jess and Freya were immersed into the Suzuki method, National Orchestras, and took inspiration from group exploration and creating music alongside friends. Evie knew from the moment she heard the cello that it was the instrument for her and found that coming from a musical family and hearing constant music making encouraged her to explore and develop her artistry.
As musicians, we find that our influences are constantly shifting as we grow; however, common with us all is the lasting effect and influence our teachers have had. For Lewis, it was his first piano teacher, Edwina, who sent him off with a real sense of excitement and passion for the music he learnt. She taught him to appreciate and respect what is on the page and that as a performer we have such a vital and important role in conveying the composer’s intentions to the audience.
We owe so much to the many incredible teachers and tutors we have had the privilege of studying with over the years (individually and as a group), helping us to find our individual voice and appreciate music for what it is. We will always be grateful to all the tutors whom we have had coaching with but also the many colleagues whom we have collaborated with and push in different musical directions that make us versatile musicians.
What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
We would say we’re currently at a very challenging point in our career having just graduated from the GSMD. We plan to continue playing and performing together and enjoy being a freelance chamber music ensemble in London. We are all however embarking upon different endeavours: Lewis has just begun the Musical Direction course at the Royal Academy of Music and Jess has just begun a Masters in Violin Performance at the Royal College of Music, whilst Freya and Evie are starting their lives as freelance musicians, and so it is key to have a strong sense of understanding and flexibility to fit in around everyone’s busy schedules.
Evie also set up a chamber music festival last year only to find the country was then plunged into lockdown only weeks before the first concert which was devastating, but we’re very excited for it to finally go ahead in the summer of 2022 (fingers crossed!)
Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?
We are incredibly proud of our recorded performance at the final of the Ivan Sutton Chamber Music Prize where we were awarded first prize! It was our debut competition as a group and our first performance post-pandemic, but we found it really brought us closer together and gave us the confidence we needed as a group.
Our first debut concert outside of Guildhall at All Saint’s Church, Blackheath, was also a very memorable experience as we performed the world premiere of Darius Paymai’s Piano Quartet! We are passionate about collaborating with up-and-coming composers so having this experience and opportunity to work with Darius was very exciting. There was something incredibly raw about that performance. Having received the scores only a couple of days before the premiere, we relied upon each other to make it work and were able to communicate through breathing together to place ethereal sounding harmonics in the beautiful and generous acoustics the church provided.
Which particular works/composers do you think you perform best?
Being such a newly formed group, we are still building up our repertoire list, however we feel that we perform Josef Suk’s music very well. His Piano Quartet No.1 in A Minor, Op.1 was the first work we felt truly comfortable playing and it really suits our colourful and varied characters. We often find ourselves sharing it with new audiences and a common thing people come up to us and say is “Wow I’ve never heard that work before!” so it’s very humbling to be the first experience audiences have of this work. There is something about the humorous quality of Mozart’s writing (notably his Piano Quartet in E-flat major, K. 493) that we have a lot of fun with and often catch someone in the quartet smiling when Mozart’s having a joke, often at our expense! We have also really warmed to learning new contemporary works and we are hoping to expand our living-composer repertoire over the next few years!
What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?
Immersing ourselves in the outstanding cultural and arts scene in London has provided us with plenty of inspiration – watching live performances, be it any genre, leaves us all buzzing and our creative brains exploding with ideas!
We are fortunate to be very good friends and knowing each other so well allows us to trust one another musically on stage, giving us confidence to take risks in performances.
Whenever we are travelling, we really value the time to talk about lots of things outside of music. We are all really big foodies and believe that pursuing other interests (such as running, yoga, reading etc) really helps in giving us brain space needed off stage to let the magic happen on stage! Having these external influences like visiting art galleries and cooking really good food (oops, brought it back to food again didn’t we…!) often helps to fuel our creativity and inspires our interpretations.
How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?
Our repertoire is usually chosen based on our upcoming concerts so that we can tailor it to the venue and audience, but we are passionate about creating varied programmes that often relate in some way. For example, next season we are learning the Brahms Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor, Op. 25 as well as Caroline Shaw’s Thousandth Orange, which was written with Brahms’ Piano Quartets in mind.
We are also constantly sending each other recordings of new pieces for us to hear, often for different combinations of the Ensemble too, for example Freya and Evie are currently learning Caroline Shaw’s ‘Limestone & Felt’ duo for viola and cello. We have also incorporated duos for violin and viola as well as sonatas for violin and piano into concerts before and this can help create the variety we strive for in concerts!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
We loved performing in All Saints Church, Blackheath, as it’s quite an intimate venue but also has a beautiful atmosphere and outlook, being right on the Heath. Our debut performance as an ensemble was in the downstairs living room at the Fidelio Café – this was such a wonderful venue to play in as it really felt like chamber music in someone’s living room – everyone had a drink in hand and there was a really comfortable and cosy atmosphere!
As students at Guildhall, we had the wonderful Milton Court Concert Hall on our doorstep! It is known for being one of the most ‘acoustically perfect’ concert halls in London and so we feel very lucky to have had the hall at our disposal and for it to feel like home for us!
We are really looking forward to performing in St Bartholomew’s the Great, West Smithfield on 14th October. It’s a really beautiful church and has had some acclaimed performers give concerts there.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?
We believe that classical music needs to be made more generally accessible; reducing concert ticket prices and performing in different, even perhaps unusual, spaces and environments. Many people are often deterred from attending concerts due to them being in big concert halls, when really we should be encouraging inclusivity. For example, Lewis saw an orchestra perform as part of the BBC Proms series in a car park and found it such an exciting event!
We are all incredibly keen to get classical music into young people’s lives and are passionate about doing outreach around the UK. Unfortunately, music seems to be dying out of the education system at a scary rate which means we go directly into schools and education centres to show young people that classical music is still a vital part of our culture.
We would also like to see more appreciation for contemporary music across audiences, which is why we actively look for and look to commission new works by new composers.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
Our performance in the Final Round of the Ivan Sutton Chamber Music Prize at Guildhall was among the most memorable. We felt our sound really blended on this evening, and it was a cherry on top that we were awarded the Winner’s Prize for this competition.
For Evie, going back to her old school (Bryanston School, Dorset) was a really special experience. We delivered masterclasses to students followed by an evening concert and found that sharing that moment as a group was very precious all while having the opportunity to inspire the younger generation.
As musicians, what is your definition of success?
As musicians, we never stop learning and developing no matter what your age and so we feel that true success comes from the overall feeling of fulfilment, having the opportunity to do something we love every day and being able to call that work!
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
Never stop learning! Be a sponge and absorb as much as you can, listen and talk to other musicians, keep practicing, be creative, stay open minded and open hearted but most importantly, have fun!
What is your present state of mind?
If we are being honest, a big old mixture of emotions! Having all graduated from Guildhall we have a lot of excitement and creative energy motivating us for our upcoming concerts and seasons, however we are also still adjusting to this new chapter in our lives! We are cautiously optimistic; the pandemic has changed all of us, but things can hopefully only get better from here. Look at the roaring 20s. We believe the arts will come back stronger than ever before.
The De Kooning Ensemble was founded in September 2019 while all the members were studying at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama (GSMD). The De Kooning Ensemble were the recipients of the Ivan Sutton Chamber Music Prize 2021 hosted at GSMD and have been coached by outstanding artists such as Sarah-Jane Bradley, Caroline Palmer, Carole Presland, Richard Lester, members of the Endellion String Quartet, and the Gould Piano Trio.
The ensemble have performed in prestigious venues including The Fidelio Café, All Saints Church, Blackheath, Milton Court Concert Hall and St Bartholomew The Great. The De Kooning Ensemble, being avid educationalists, were awarded a residency at the Centre of Young Musicians Taunton in 2021 and have given multiple masterclasses at Bryanston School in Dorset.