They have already created a stir in the US and Scandinavia. Now the Danish String Quartet are heading for the Lammermuir Festival
As the colossal urban bash that is August’s Edinburgh Festivals gives way to the rural intimacy of East Lothian’s Lammermuir Festival, which kicks off on Friday, don’t equate smaller size and scale with lesser quality. For there’s nothing in Lammermuir’s packed daily programme that is anything less than classy, top drawer musical entertainment.
This year’s Festival opens with concerts by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra and BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, ends with the Dunedin Consort in Mozart’s Requiem, and in between features, in venues across the region, such well-established artists as vocal ensembles Stile Antico and the King’s Singers, oboist François Leleux (absolutely not to be missed) with the Hebrides Ensemble, Dutch violinist Cecilia Bernardini playing unaccompanied Bach, the Aronowitz Ensemble with former Scottish Piano Competition winner Tom Poster, featured resident Festival artist Alec Frank-Gemmill (the SCO’s virtuoso horn player), the NYCoS Girls Choir, and Baroque music from flautist Katy Bircher and harpsichordist James Johnstone.
But there’s one residency that is of particular interest: that of the young Danish String Quartet, a group relatively unknown in Scotland, but which has already been creating major waves in its native Scandinavia and in the United States. The likelihood of that changing was accelerated last week with the announcement that the BBC has signed the Quartet up to its prestigious BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist scheme.
Formed in Copenhagen 12 years ago, where its two violinists are leading players in the Copenhagen Philharmonic Orchestra, the Quartet first made international headlines in 2009 when it won the London International String Quartet competition, lifting four additional prizes, notably for its interpretations of Beethoven and 20th century repertoire.
Then last year it was appointed resident ensemble of the New York Lincoln Centre’s Chamber Music Society. So this forthcoming residency at the Lammermuir Festival looks like an ideal opportunity for Scottish audiences to see an exciting string quartet at a pivotal moment in its development.
Norwegian-born cellist Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin has no doubt that the Quartet’s new BBC status will be critical in cementing its future. “It means that the BBC will be recording many of our concerts in the UK, so I guess we’ll be played on radio much more,” he says. “At the moment they are recording performances that were already planned, but beyond this winter we will be able to programme and plan specifically with the BBC, which is a fantastic opportunity to develop and record new and existing repertoire.” And much of that will happen in parallel to its commitment in America, and a Lincoln Centre season that swings properly into action in November. What’s really exciting for Sjölin and his colleagues, though, is the speed at which wider opportunities are already opening up in the US, no doubt helped when the New York Times described their playing as “music making of wonderful ease and naturalness”.
The Quartet already has prestigious dates lined up at Washington’s Library of Congress, a Boston debut as part of the Boston Celebrity Series, and in Dallas, Detroit, San Diego and Princeton. “Great things are happening there,” says Sjölin.
It’s a far cry from life back in Copenhagen, where the Quartet has been existing until now on something of a shoestring. “There’s not the money right now to support quartets, and the residencies that are common in the States are not so common here. What we do have is a wonderful network of chamber music societies. Every town has one, and these, as well as the many summer festivals, keep us busy,” he says.
In its three East Lothian appearances next weekend, in Aberlady, Stenton and Whitekirk, the programming is mainly staple repertoire that is the test bed of any emerging quartet. There’s Haydn, Mendelssohn, Janácek, as well as the clarinet quintets of Mozart and Brahms with fellow BBC New Generation Artist, clarinettist Mark Simpson. But they will also play some Danish folk song arrangements, now a distinctive element of their programming. “It started with Rune [Tonsgaard Sørensen], one of our violinists, who grew up with folk music. I guess we all did to some extent, so we started doing arrangements, which found there way into our concerts,” says Sjölin.
“We’re planning to record a CD of folk music in September, though we don’t know what were going to play yet. So were going to book ourselves into a small cabin in the north of Denmark, buy some beers and see what happens. This kind of experience is really helpful, going back to basics, and not just trying to discuss how to play a work, but actually composing and arranging it. There are no boundaries, anything can happen, and that’s going to be interesting.”
The Danish String Quartet performs at the Lammermuir Festival, which runs from 13-22 September, www.lammermuirfestival.co.uk