Enthusiastically involved in an extensive outreach programme that takes chamber music into schools, the Sacconi Quartet share their experiences with Katherine Smith. Leos Janacek’s Intimate Letters is not the most obvious piece to play to a group of primary school children, as much for the autobiographical background to the work as for the music itself. Written in 1928, during the months before he died at the age of 74, the Czech composer’s second string quartet is a rapturous expression of his feelings towards Kamila Stosslova, a married woman 38 years his junior. For more than 20 years the elderly composer was obsessed with the younger woman and they exchanged more than 700 letters, which were to be the inspiration for this work. The composition was intended to reflect the character of the relationship as he saw it. It is a musically and technically challenging work that narrates a fantasy story from the couple’s first meeting, through blissful devotion and the imaginary child they never had, before concluding with an impassioned rondo finale. ‘It has so much potential,’ says Robin Ashwell, ABRSM scholar for 2001–2003 and violist in the Sacconi Quartet. ‘It’s about letters, love and travel.’ The highly charged work inspired the quartet to run a series of school workshops in the UK last year. Collaborating with actor Tim Goldman, the workshops were filled with activities to enthuse the children, and introduced excerpts of the work and some of the compositional techniques with which Janacek experimented. ‘Young people aren’t pre-conditioned to want to hear symmetrical tunes or eight-bar phrases,’ Robin explains. ‘They just love hearing all the effects.’ From sul ponticello and tremolos, to trills, false harmonics and abrupt changes of mood, there is certainly an abundance of material to draw on. Towards the end of each workshop the children were encouraged to write letters themselves. These were then used as a basis for their own compositions, which they could then perform with the quartet. These Janacek-inspired workshops form part of the Sacconi Quartet’s broad outreach programme that has taken the group outside the concert hall and into schools, hospitals, prisons and care homes across the UK, to Germany and as far as Jordan. ‘It’s a really rewarding experience,’ cellist Cara Berridge tells Libretto. ‘It is brilliant playing to children. They are completely candid about what they say and you can tell they are really excited if they’ve not heard a quartet before.’ Each year the ensemble plays to more than 2,000 children and is supported by a number of organisations including the Sacconi Trust, friends and patrons of the quartet, and the Cavatina Chamber Music Trust (CCMT), a UK charitable organisation which aims to bring chamber music to young people. One of the quartet’s greatest achievements to date is the setting up of its own chamber music festival in Kent. The weekend-long event takes place annually in May and, before the festival itself begins, the group offers several concerts locally, supported by the CCMT. One school in Folkestone where the quartet has made a particular impact is St Eanswythe’s Primary School. After holding a workshop there three years ago, one class was so inspired by its visit that all the pupils took up the violin as part of the Wider Opportunities initiative. The quartet has maintained its links with the school and returns each year to work with the children. ‘They remember us and really look forward to us coming – it’s a big part of their year,’ says Ben Hancox, ABRSM scholar for 2003–2005 and first violinist in the quartet. Ben was particularly pleased to see many of these primary school children come to the quartet’s festival concerts last year, and even some teenage boys from the local secondary school, with whom the group had also worked. ‘That’s when you really know it’s beginning to work,’ he adds. Another project the Sacconi Quartet has been enthusiastic to support is ABRSM’s award-winning Music Medals programme, which provides flexible assessments for group teaching in UK schools and Music Services. In July 2009, it took part in a chamber music workshop in the North East of England, working with a group of 30 children and their teachers from nine local schools. The children were all working towards their Bronze medal assessment and the quartet took it in turns to work with them to improve their listening, performance and leadership skills, and to develop their confidence in ensemble playing. ‘We hope the workshop encouraged them to play with greater abandon, to use their imaginations and to generally enjoy making music together,’ says the quartet’s second violinist, Hannah Dawson. All four members of the group demonstrate a shared passion for the string quartet repertoire, reaching out to audiences with their infectious energy. They were friends and played together informally before starting at the Royal College of Music (RCM). Their personal affinity for each other is still clearly evident. While studying at the RCM, Robin and Ben also benefited from receiving ABRSM scholarships and took advantage of not having to take on other employment by rehearsing with the group almost everyday. Their musical development as an ensemble was particularly influenced by eminent violinists Gabor Takacs-Nagy and Levon Chilingirian. Robin speaks enthusiastically of what they learnt from them: ‘They gave us so many insights into quartet playing. They really pushed and encouraged us.’ Since graduating, the group has achieved a string of competition successes and performed at many of the major concert venues worldwide. The quartet has also given several British and world premieres including works by composers Alan Hoddinott, Graham Fitkin and David Gorton. These three compositions were commissioned by the London String Quartet Foundation and ABRSM, with funds provided by the John S. Cohen and Neville Abraham Foundations, and were published as part of ABRSM’s Spectrum series in 2008. The group has even found time to set up its own recording label and to feature on Paul McCartney’s recent song Come Home. As the quartet celebrates a decade of playing together in 2011, education and outreach work remains at the heart of its work. ‘Our experiences have been invaluable: children’s reactions to music are often spontaneous and uninhibited, which in turn inspires us.’
This article was originally featured in the January 2011 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.