3 July 2012
By William Dart, New Zealand Herald
Next week sees the welcome return of one of the world's top chamber ensembles when the Takacs Quartet sets off on its five-centre New Zealand tour. I caught up with cellist Andras Fejer who founded the group back in 1975. For this Hungarian, a career in chamber music was inevitable.
"My parents were musicians and played in chamber ensembles and so did my teachers at the Franz Liszt Academy," he explains. "It was practically a given that I would too."
There have been major changes over the past four decades, the biggest being the group's shift from Europe to Boulder, Colorado, in the early 1980s.
A good move, Fejer stresses; not only was it stimulating musically but "the scenery is a little like a mixture of New Zealand and Austria - we are literally working just 600 metres from the foot of the mountains".
Two years ago, I spoke with the Takacs' new violist Geraldine Walther and, though there have not been many personnel changes over the years, Fejer welcomes them.
"A new person asks questions and you'd better have the answers ready," he laughs. "It means we relearn and re-evaluate the pieces; things get tweaked and we enjoy that because it makes for freshness. It's a very rewarding process."
In fact, he confides what could be the group's motto - "Let's keep it fresh, let's keep it honest; let's give the best we can."
On its last Chamber Music New Zealand tour in 2010 the Takacs Quartet created a buzz by premiering a fine new commission from John Psathas. Fejer vividly remembers the aptly-titled A Cool Wind.
"We liked it very much and programmed it accordingly," he says. "After New Zealand we took it to Europe and even played it at Carnegie Hall. It's so important to do today's music, both to expand our own repertoire and to expose new pieces and composers."
However, securing a place for the contemporary in programmes can be a problem.
"It's not enough that we like the piece," says Fejer. "We also have to convince the chamber music societies to programme it. Too often our word is not enough."
He estimates the proportion of conservative concert-giving organisations at around 70 per cent. Would-be advocates of today's music "have to tread very carefully or the society will stop believing in them".
Indeed, next week's mix of Janacek, Bartok and Ravel (Debussy in Hamilton) is fairly adventurous. For Fejer, though, it is nothing unexceptional.
"It's just an amalgam of the music we love to play, that the tour presenters want to hear and what we are recording," he says, indicating that the Janacek will come out on CD next year.
Best of all, he is only too happy to give pointers for punters with next week's offerings. For the Janacek, he suggests going to the composer himself: "a quirky and capriciously passionate man. You never know what's coming, but his music always sounds as if it could be no one but Janacek."
Fejer has heartening words for those nervous about the 17 intense minutes of Bartok's Third Quartet.
"Ninety per cent of it can either be related to folk-song or a village fair with peasants dancing."
As for Ravel, I am warned that the Takacs players push well beyond any Gallic surface. "There's also a romantic and highly emotional side to this music. You're not going to bring out its red hot passion by only playing in a French style."