The Streeton Trio with Diana Doherty | In Conversation with Megan Steller
In the midst of 2020’s lockdown, Emma Jardine of the Streeton Trio had her hands full. Unusually, though, they weren’t busied with the violin, but instead with gardening and cooking and chasing her three children under the age of five, the youngest of whom had been born that January. As the year progressed, and the crisis escalated, leaving colleagues and friends out of work and the sector as we knew it strangely deserted, she had started contemplating the work she had been engaged in up until that point – what was the true purpose of art? What is the point of music? How should musicians and artists be grappling with the question of their relevancy as all around them theatres and concert halls shutter?
One afternoon, this question at the forefront of Emma’s mind, one of her children was idly scanning the radio as she tended to her garden. As he flicked through the channels, there out of the blue appeared Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio no 1 and Emma knew immediately that it was her ensemble that the presenter had chosen to broadcast. She hurried over to sit next to her son, and all of the feelings that had been brewing since the beginning of the strange new normal arose.
“You know when it hits you?” she asked me, when we caught up on the phone at the start of the new year. “It was beautiful and sad, and a great feeling of longing and nostalgia filled me all at once, remembering how it feels to perform, to feel the connection and energy of the audience.” You get on with things, we mused, with life and day-to-day frustrations and joys, and then all of a sudden it strikes you: the reason why artists must continue to create.
Once the entirety of the piano trio had been performed, Emma listened as ABC Classic FM broadcaster Martin Buzacott relayed a text message he had received in the studio while the Mendelssohn played; a lady called Annette from Melbourne had written to tell him about her amateur piano trio, who had played together every Wednesday for the past 30 years.
That Mendelssohn trio had been a favourite of theirs to play together. Since the pandemic had begun, their cellist had been moved into an aged care facility, so the trio had been unable to get together for the first time in three decades. As soon as Annette heard those opening strains on the ABC though, performed deftly by the Streeton Trio, she’d called up her two long-time friends and musical colleagues and the trio had sat together, but apart, listening and remembering.
The power of chamber music, in all its imitable, intimate goodness, is its ability to “touch people to their very core”; a feeling that has been wildly missed by both the performers and their listeners over the past months. For acclaimed oboist Diana Doherty, who will join the Streeton Trio for Musica Viva Australia’s first program of the 2021 season, the “slightly slower pace of the past year was an opportunity to let go of perfectionism. The pursuit of perfectionism is one that many musicians get drawn into, as if it is achievable or even definable.” In finding space for the simple joys of what music can do, in particular the music shared by distant colleagues, Diana has relished the return to “the communication of the music” as first priority.
“I am determined to hold onto the freshness that this period of reflection has afforded us,” she says when asked about the challenges and excitements of moving into a time of renewed performance opportunities. “We love what we do, but when it feeds us and financially sustains us, it adds additional pressure. I had turned into someone who didn’t listen to music ever, because playing in an orchestra, what I craved was silence at the end of the day. I needed to rest my ears, so I stopped listening even to the radio, and I’ve rediscovered [in this time] the joy of hearing my colleagues and friends performing. I have turned the music back on.”
The importance of chamber music to the growth both technically, musically, “and quite simply, as human beings” cannot be understated, says Diana. “It is a microcosm of all the things you need to learn in both music and life, particularly in its ability to teach you how to communicate, and how to both give and receive feedback.” The practice of playing in intimate settings with others “extends you” in myriad ways – “I am always looking for better ways to accompany, to articulate more subtly, to be in tune all the time in this different setting. It is all learning, and you’ve never learned enough!”
Emma echoes these thoughts about the joys and learnings of working in a small ensemble: “Music is a puzzle, and you have to figure out how it best fits together – which part feeds off which other part? Who has the line you most want to bring out? How do you communicate the feeling to the person that plays the most important line after you?”
Creating a collaborative process that ensures your ensemble can fit all those puzzle pieces together seamlessly is about negotiation and practicality. Both Diana and Emma, who are playing chamber music together for the first time in these performances, reiterate the importance of good communication in the rehearsal space to ensure that each member has artistic input. Unlike in an orchestral setting, where players look to a conductor for final decisions, the members of the chamber ensemble have the bottom line, so it’s important that everyone gets a chance to speak their mind. It’s not as tricky to negotiate as it sounds though; “we’re at the stage where we won’t get offended if someone doesn’t agree with our musical idea,” says Emma of the trio. “We know there are many good ways of creating a phrase!”
Opening the Musica Viva’s 2021 season is “a dream come true” for the Streeton Trio. The organisation had a hand in mentoring the budding ensemble in their early days, taking them on as “a rising star group and giving us opportunities for both performance and to learn the business and administration side of the music sector – the things that they don’t teach you at music school, when you’re stuck in a practise room for eight hours of every day!”
Diana is ready to “share the joy” of being together again with her beloved colleagues on stage. “’Here we are’, these performances will say; ‘we did it in spite of everything. In spite of the challenges that we’ve faced, and the hurdles that have had to be jumped to get here.’”
This program – the old, the brand new, the favourites, and the rare gems – is a great celebration of the power of music to revitalise, to re-establish, and to re-invent. We have, as Diana said, “turned the music back on.”