How was the end of March 2020 for you?
Trio Aries: The worst thing was the ongoing uncertainty. None of us knew how long it would last. A few weeks? Months? And now we’re almost a year down the line … However, we realised quite early on that the cultural sector would have to adapt to the new situation. That we’d have to find alternatives, new ways to perform.
Desguin Kwartet: Those were extremely shocking days... We were rehearsing at the moment the first cancellation came in. The phone kept ringing and ringing: months of work suddenly went down the drain. Now, you automatically take into account that concerts might be cancelled, you include it in your calculations, but back then all those cancellations were a completely new experience. That’s something that hit us all very hard.
Has the lockdown had any positive aspects?
Trio Aries: Definitely. One can think of coronavirus as a ‘reboot’ for society. And for man as an artist. The rat race we were all part of came to a standstill. Suddenly there was time to get back to the essence, without having to worry about deadlines. Studying, focusing on the repertoire you really want to play, and making music for yourself.
Desguin Kwartet: It’s been a period of reorientation for the quartet too: an opportunity to really delve into the string quartet repertoire. Our final programmes for next season have been compiled on that basis. We also had time to hone our skills individually and develop our next major interdisciplinary project.
Live concerts were a possibility once more in the summer months …
Desguin Kwartet: Indeed. Our first live concert was in the beginning of July, in the Zomerfabriek in Antwerp. It was amazing to finally be able to play to an audience again. A few weeks later we also performed at the Klassiek Leeft Jong festival in Knokke-Heist. We were invited by Liebrecht Vanbeckevoort, who had got to know us at the Supernova semi-final at Beeldenstorm Anderlecht. The first return of the Supernova competition!
Trio Aries: What is unusual about these performances is the new mindset: ours and that of the audience. Everyone is abundantly aware that the concert they are attending may be the last for many months. That’s an invitation to live in the moment. Last year, we were still thinking in terms of ‘next year we’ll play at this place, and that place the year after’. Now, it’s more like, ‘If we’re lucky, we’ll play again next week’. In such a fragile, exceptional situation, the appreciation and effort given for a single concert is that much greater.
During the Supernova competition, the Desguin Kwartet stood out for its unusual choices of repertoire and exciting crossovers. What drives you to do this?
Desguin Kwartet: As a string quartet, we’re not solely interested in Mozart and Beethoven, but less obvious 20th-century composers too. However, audiences sometimes find that music hard to take in. Combining it with a lighter repertoire can provide a solution, but we are primarily interested in interdisciplinarity. By embedding a piece by Hindemith in a story to give it some context, this music becomes a lot more accessible. This is what we’ve done with our presentation of ‘In Flanders Field’, a collaboration with pianist Florestan Bataillie, baritone Werner Van Mechelen and actor Stefan Degand. The presentations of ‘Verlaine’ and ‘Tsjaikovski’s geheim’ go further down that path.
The members of Trio Aries studied at conservatories in Berlin (Alice Van Leuven), Zürich (Paul Heyman) and London (Wouter Valvekens). How has the coronavirus affected this internationality?
Trio Aries: We graduated at just the right time – just before coronavirus. On the one hand, it’s highly regrettable that travel has become almost impossible, cancelling almost all foreign projects. We will have to revive our contacts at a later date. On the other, we’re extremely grateful for the opportunities a country like Belgium has to offer young musicians. The Belgian cultural institutions have come up with a whole range of great initiatives in recent times!
The Desguin Kwartet is particularly focused on rediscovering Belgian composers. What makes them so interesting to you?
Desguin Kwartet: Works by Belgian composers are always an incredible discovery, both for the audience and ourselves. Given that few, if any, recordings are available of the scores we are rediscovering, we have to explore the language of the composer in question every time. If you play exactly what Peter Benoit put down on paper, you get a caricature of his music. Finding out what someone meant by certain instructions is an incredibly fascinating process. Totally different to playing a piece by Beethoven, whose long performance history and rigidly-defined audience expectations determine a great deal in advance. Rediscovering unknown work provides great freedom.
Which works have Trio Aries been looking at recently?
Trio Aries: We have done a lot of work on Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 2, an incredibly beautiful piece with symphonic dimensions. We’ve also been working on Schönberg’s Verklärte Nacht in an arrangement for piano trio by Eduard Steuermann. We were originally scheduled to perform it for the first time in early April but that was cancelled. But recently we were able to perform the premiere, and we will soon be making a recording.
How do you feel about livestreaming concerts?
Desguin Kwartet: The best thing about a concert is the interaction with the audience. As a musician, you don’t just give; you also get a whole lot back. That dimension is completely lost. And as there is an intermediary - the sound engineer - the ultimate quality of the concert is no longer in your hands. On the other hand, we’re really happy that so many livestream concerts are being organised and that we still have things to work towards.
Trio Aries: Livestreaming certainly has its merits. There’s something rebellious about it. You don’t drop everything, but you keep bringing that culture into people’s living rooms. Livestreams are not at all profitable, but the dedication of many cultural workers ensures excellent results. Livestreams allow us to stay connected with our audience as best we can. And that makes us want to keep going.