Striking the Perfect Balance

April 30, 2019

Violist Hélène Clément talks tennis, slippers and her upcoming tour with the Doric String Quartet – the British supergroup hailed by The Times as ‘superb’. Hear them in Newcastle on 20 June as they undertake their first national tour for Musica Viva.

A Doric column, thanks to the ancient Greeks, is a simple, perfect thing. It makes its fluted way directly into the floor; no fancy stuff, only a sublime balance of proportion. 

The same can be said for the Doric Quartet. This year they celebrate their twenty-first birthday, and they are going to do it in slippers.

Hélène Clément, viola player with the quartet, spoke with me from Milan; she laughs as she talks about the importance of slippers, supermarkets and family dinners in that balance, especially when they are on tour or recording. 

“When we are recording, we try to make it as stress-free as possible. To make it celebratory. We usually bring our slippers and go on a big trip to the supermarket and buy lots of food. Make it more like a family.”

Balancing an ensemble with three other people is perhaps a bond beyond marriage. But there is yet another bond – the one with your instrument. Hélène has been playing for a year on an 1843 Guissani viola, once owned by Frank Bridge, and given to a chap called Benjamin Britten as he left England for America in 1939. 

Your instrument is important, but the bow, the tool that draws out the sound from the instrument, is crucial too. Do you remember that scene from Harry Potter, when Harry thinks he’s choosing his wand? 

Hélène agrees with the comparison. “It’s the same thing. It sounds stupid to say, but it’s the same thing absolutely. The bow chooses you.

“The bow I just bought inspires me to play differently. I respond to what the bow offers, so therefore I play a bit differently, and then the bow responds. It’s a constant dialogue.”

The quartet plays earlier composers such as Haydn with slightly different bows, known as classical bows. They are lighter, slightly shorter, generally nimbler. More like Lleyton Hewitt than Mark Philippoussis. But Hélène reminds us of a crucial fact.

“It’s important never to forget they are just tools. It’s the feeling that is more important.”

And that feeling is demonstrated by the Doric in some of the most profound work in the quartet repertoire, especially the Beethoven Opus 131.

There is no shying away from complexity then, with this programming for the Musica Viva tour. And the new piece by famed Australian composer Brett Dean, his third quartet sub-titled Hidden Agendas, sits confidently and aptly beside these other masters. Another perfect balance.

“He sent us the score, and we got hugely excited. We have played so much of his music, so we know the language. I could hear a lot of it, just by looking at it. He knows our playing so well that we know he really wrote for us. And it’s a great viola part!

 “We have a very strong relationship with Brett. We got to know him well when we played chamber music with him and made a recording.” 

But did they get him to wear slippers?

“He did!” 

Ah, Brett. So what will the Doric Quartet be doing for their 21st birthday? 

“As always – recording, at least once a year. We’re slowly working our way through all the Haydn Quartets. Now we feel we’re mature; it’s exciting to reach out to the next generation. We’ve started a festival in Scotland called Mendelssohn on Mull.  We invite ten young musicians, and we try to inspire them with our essence. With what we are, who we are.” 

And that is exactly who they are – a sublime balance of proportion. Just like those columns.

The Doric String Quartet will perform at Newcastle Conservatorium on Thursday June 20 at 7:30pm. For bookings and further details, please visit


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