Arts: String something simple

Say goodbye to the stuffy string quartet. Now they're the preserve of trendy twentysomethings.

The two men in the front glower menacingly into the camera dressed in flapping lumberjack shirts and trainers. Behind them stand a grim-faced blonde and a bearded man in black. They could be muggers awaiting their prey, or new recruits for Madonna's bodyguard team. In fact, they are members of a string quartet about to launch an anniversary concert programme at the Royal Festival Hall.

String ensembles? They're those clusters of constipated, grey-haired men in tail coats. Or are they? A curious phenomenon has occurred in the past few years: string quartets are trendy. Switch on to Jools Holland's show and you'll see a resident ensemble sawing away with the singers. The Spice Girls have used one, as has Icelandic pop star Bjork. Leafing through the programmes for Europe's summer festivals you'll notice a gallery of twentysomething foursomes in jeans and leopard-spotted bodies.

This revolution has been led by the American-based Kronos Quartet, which was founded 25 years ago. Its founder, David Harrington, says: "I don't subscribe to the idea that quartets play in some cloister on a Sunday afternoon. I have spent my career trying to bring the world we know into this medium called music." The piece of music that inspired him to found the group was a protest against the Vietnam war, George Crumb's Black Angels. Since then he has pursued musical politics with Steve Reich's Different Trains about the Nazi death transports, a piece featuring gays rioting against homosexual discrimination and a composition performed as a background to the voices of FBI director Edgar Hoover and the American anti-war polemicist IF Stone.

The Kronos mission to transform what they see as a staid genre into a mouthpiece for modern issues is shared by the British Brodsky Quartet, which also achieves its silver jubilee this year.

Jackie Thomas, the Brodsky cellist says: "We found the trend used to be to teach individual instruments, which was a shame because playing in a quartet is the best way to learn to listen to others."

Their youthful verve won them some unlikely fans. They formed the musical background to Paul McCartney's "Eleanor Rigby" and Elvis Costello learnt musical notation so that they could work together on The Juliet Letters.

Like the Kronos, the Brodskys have eschewed traditional evening dress and they prefer to perform standing up. "There is so much more energy," says Thomas. "The usual image of a quartet is of an elite, compact insular unit with the audience like voyeurs. Standing up lets the audience in more."

Most of the new quartets prefer to stick to more traditional repertoire than the Brodsky and the Kronos but inject it with such youthful vigour that chamber music is enjoying its biggest boom since the 1930s. One of the attractions is the size and the scope of the repertoire available.

The Polish violist Krzysztof Chorzelski formed the four-year-old Belcea Quartet with students at the Royal College of Music because he disapproved of what he calls the increasingly industrial approach of orchestras. With the youngest player only 21, the Belcea is already beginning to attract critical acclaim. "Players are becoming like an employee in a factory," he says. "Chamber music offers less financial stability but more creativity."

A more unconventional explanation for the trend is offered by Georges Zeisel who in 1987 launched Pro-Quartet, a foundation to raise the standard of chamber music in France. He believes musical tastes mirror the political climate and points out that the revival began in earnest in the 1980s when the Communist bloc was crumbling.

Jonas Krejci, 28, a cellist with the Prague-based Skampa Quartet agrees that independence, political or personal, is the lure for the modern musician. "I felt an orchestra was too impersonal and I didn't feel I could get my ideas across as one player among 60," he says. The group formed just after the Velvet Revolution which meant that they, unlike their predecessors, could travel freely abroad to establish their reputation. They became the first ensemble ever to be appointed a residency at the Wigmore Hall.

While there may be more room for individuality in a quartet, the players must do without the protection of an orchestra and the freedom of a soloist. Each must work in perfect accord with the others. The enforced intimacy is an added stress, particularly on tour. "It's like a marriage, so there's always some friction," says Krejci. "You are four people trying to be as one so there is no room for ego."

The Sorrel Quartet is classical music's equivalent to The Spice Girls. The all-woman band in their colourful silk shirts is another sign of the changing face of chamber music. "We try to be gutsy and not feminine, but we do sometimes have to make more of an effort because we are all women and people notice us." They have recorded works by Britten, Tavener and Doreen Carwithen, widow of the composer William Alwyn and are about to start the complete cycle of Shostakovich quartets. In June they give the world premiere of John Pickard's fourth quartet at the Wigmore Hall.

Whether all these ensembles will survive is another matter. The Brodsky's experience is encouraging for young quartets like the Belcea who are just starting out. "When we began we were conditioned to think that only when we were old and grey would people accept us," says Belton. "But we abandoned our tails to avoid the dusty quartet image and experimented with new kinds of music."

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

    £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

    C# Developer (HTML5, JavaScript, ASP.NET, Mathematics, Entity)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

    C# Integration Developer (.NET, Tibco EMS, SQL 2008/2012, XML)

    £60000 - £80000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Integration...

    Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

    £75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?