Elias String Quartet. Photo: Kaupo Kikkas (detail) View full image

Maybe I’m amazed

As the Elias Quartet prepares to go on tour in North America, cellist Marie Bitlloch explains the endless excitement of playing Beethoven

What do you enjoy most about touring in North America?

We go there once a year. It’s full on and some of the distances are huge, but we enjoy returning to venues we already know, as well as discovering new ones.

I love the variety of playing in small, intimate venues, as well as bigger, more formal and imposing concert halls they have there. You learn to adapt to the different acoustics. Some venues, even the larger ones, can take a lot of soft playing, which we enjoy particularly.

The smaller halls often have amazing atmospheres – you can almost feel the audience’s breath. You don’t have to try so hard to project the sound, so you can live in the moment. It also feeds the romantic notion that we’re playing chamber music the way it was designed to be played. In Beethoven’s time, quartets were played in living rooms – that’s what chamber music was for.

How widely do your interpretations vary when you tour?

The essence is the same, but how we go about delivering the performance changes – the technique of sound production, the speed, taking time to listen to the silence. All that varies with different acoustics. But the fundamental message remains.

How do you define what that message is?

That’s the purpose of our rehearsals. Of course, they are also to put the music together – to make it sound together and in tune, and look at technical aspects etc, but it’s mainly about deciding how to interpret the dots on the page and what the music means.

We talk a lot about characters. A certain phrase could be interpreted as happy, jolly or a little more melancholic – there are so many different characters that you can put into music, all while following the instructions on the page perfectly. It’s a question of taking all the clues that the composer has left us – the harmony, the structure, the markings – and deciding what it means to us in terms of emotion, message and journey.

How has your understanding of Beethoven developed since your Beethoven Project, over ten years ago?

That was the first time we ever presented a full Beethoven cycle. We spent a lot of time then and in the years leading up to it immersed in Beethoven’s quartets, trying to see them in context. The great thing about presenting a cycle is that you don’t just hear one piece by a composer, you hear all their output for that formation. It gives you a much greater insight into who they are musically and their compositional development throughout their life.

Every time we go back to a piece we’ve played before, we try and do it with fresh minds and ears. Often, one of us will have new ideas or say something like, ‘I’ve been playing Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony and it’s given me this new insight.’ We don’t make a point of coming up with new ideas for the sake of it, but there will often be new thoughts or feelings.

Even if it’s not something that is articulated in rehearsal, every performance is different. With late Beethoven, for example, each piece is such a special journey, and when you perform them, they take on a life of their own. No matter how well we try to plan, they tend to go in a slightly different direction. That’s the beauty of chamber music, and the genius of Beethoven and all the composers we play. We are giving a rendition of a piece, but sometimes the piece takes us where it wants, rather than the other way around.

How does it feel on stage when that happens?

It feels amazing and slightly scary. When you play a certain piece ten or twenty times in a season, it can develop differently each time. With experience you learn to embrace that but also keep some sort of control. When we play three Beethoven quartets in one concert, it’s very intense – both for us and the audience. It’s long, meaty and very emotional music. You can’t help but feel a little changed at the end – a bit dazed. If we’ve done our jobs well, we and the audience have all been completely immersed, so it’s a bit like coming out of a dream.

How do you recover when you’re on tour?

It’s not easy, especially when there are concerts every day, but it’s very important to relax. We eat, drink, go to sleep and then get on the next plane. Touring is very compact: get up, travel, practise, rehearse, perform, rinse, repeat! It helps that each venue has a different feel, which separates one concert day from another. Regardless of how tired you are, or whether you’re having a good or bad day, you feel reset when you get to the next venue.

What have you learnt about being four individuals working together under stress?

We’re all very different. Whether it’s touring or recording, or any kind of situation where we’re under stress, we all react very differently. Of course, after so many years of playing together, we know each other really well, but there needs to be a lot of respect and care for whatever each of us needs on any day. Someone might need a lot of rehearsal and someone else might need less; someone might need us to be together all the time and someone else not. It’s very important to realise this and to be patient with ourselves and each other, and to be open to the everyone’s needs.

We’re four people who have lives and a past, but when it’s time to go on stage, all that disappears, and we become a team that is going to go through this journey together.

Do you have any sort of rituals?

We each have little things we do before concerts. For me, something as silly as doing my makeup is like putting on my performance face. That’s when it’s time to forget all the little things that have gone wrong in the day and transform myself. It sounds a little corny, but I become a little less me and a little more whatever we’re playing.

Do you ever have conflicts?

We have a lot of conflicts – any quartet who says differently is lying! Of course, there are disagreements and often a lot of good comes out of them. It’s the resolving of conflicts and arguments that is interesting – like in any relationship.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand that many compromises are needed from everyone, of course, but if everyone is happy, whether musically or with how much work we have or the kind of commitments we take on, then the quartet sounds good. If people are frustrated or unhappy, we don’t.

We have evolved a lot with the way we work over the years. There was a time when we were completely full time, lived 15 minutes’ walk away from each other and hardly did anything else, which was wonderful and intense. Now we work in patches, live in four different countries and everyone has other musical projects in their lives. That evolution has come from people voicing their concerns and wishes. Each person needs to know what they need or wish, what they want to take away from the quartet, and to voice it. We always try to find a way to answer those wishes that works for everyone.

Do you have any special of touring life?

Last year, we did a full Beethoven cycle in Houston – the first time we have played the six concerts in one sitting, across ten days, with nothing else in the middle. Most of the audience came to everything. The intensity and beauty of doing the cycle like this is that you go through this journey together, alongside the audience. It’s hard work for them, as well as for us, and takes a lot of concentration and dedication. It was powerful to have it all, concert after concert, with nothing else to take our focus, and to go through it with one group of people. As travelling artists, it’s unusual to bond that way with an audience, but we got to know faces, to talk to them and see them the next day.

We’re doing another cycle in Tokyo in June which will also be ten days. We’ve never played in Japan so I’m really looking forward to that.

What will your next cycle be?

Next season we are presenting all Mendelssohn’s string chamber music at the Wigmore Hall over four concerts – seven quartets, two quintets and the octet, as well as Fanny Mendelssohn’s quartet. We’ll delve into his music and put pieces in context. For the quintets and octet, we’ve invited the Heath Quartet to join us.

Mendelssohn was our first love as a quartet, the first composer we found a voice with – we’re named after his oratorio, Elijah. His op.13 String Quartet is where we fell in love with each other at the beginning, so it’ll be amazing to revisit all these pieces. We haven’t played some of them for a while, and since then, Simone, our viola player, has joined us. It’s always interesting and exciting to revisit pieces with a new person. She will bring fresh eyes and ears.

Elias String Quartet North America Tour Dates

Vancouver Playhouse: 14 March

Chamber Music in Napa Valley: 16 March

Spivey Hall, Clayton State University: 18 March

University of Northern Iowa: 21–24 March (plus masterclass on 22 March)

Ladies' Morning Music Club, Montreal: 26 March

Philadelphia Chamber Music Society: 28 March

Japan Beethoven Cycle

Suntory Hall: 3–14 June