Quartet’s double act warms the heart

2 June 2023

All wrapped up in the sweet sounds of the Darlington Quartet, Bourby Webster finds the perfect way to ward off the winter chill.

Darlington Quartet, WAAPA’s Quartet in Residence 
Richard Gill Auditorium, 31 May 2023 

It’s a challenge on this cold, damp night to leave the warmth of my car outside Richard Gill Auditorium. But I am intrigued by the promise of musical birds and frogs inside. 

For its debut as quartet in residence at WAAPA, the Darlington Quartet is performing WA’s first live performance of local composer Emma Jayakumar’s Bell Birds Suite, alongside Joseph Haydn’s Frog Quartet (String Quartet in D Major, Op.50 No.6).  

During the welcome, WAAPA associate dean of music Jamie Oehlers reveals that the Darlington Quartet succeeded violinist Paul Wright as joint directors of the academy’s Classical String Program. “We got four for the price of one,” jokes Oehlers, before introducing Semra Lee and Zak Rowntree (violins), Sally Boud (viola) and Jon Tooby (cello).  

I love that they have chosen smart dress over black concert gowns and position themselves against the front row of the audience. I am barely four metres from Lee and I am in the third row. It feels intimate and relaxed, a night in with friends. 

Jayakumar introduces her work, and I am thrilled to hear a recording of this piece by the Darlington Quartet has been getting regular play on ABC Classic. Inspired by Henry Kendall’s poem Bell Birds (1869), Commissioned by the ABC in 2020, it is Jayakumar’s first work for string quartet.  

She reveals her ode to the Australian bush is loosely programmatic (that is, the music is intended to tell a story), the poem chosen because it reminds of going to the Blue Mountains with her grandparents to hear bell birds. 

Semra Lee is one of two violinists in the Darlington Quartet. Photo: Stephen Heath

The quartet opens with isolated pizzicato (plucked strings) shared around the quartet, then bowed glissando notes, instantly evoking an image of nature before a reflective solo cello melody emerges. The acoustics in the auditorium are fantastic – the sound is so close I feel like I am wearing headphones. The balance between the players is perfect, the spot-on intonation allowing the instruments to resonate fully. The movement grows in counterpoint but is wonderfully visual. 

The second movement could be a nod to French impressionist composer Ravel. It’s a driving movement, each musician deftly coping with the vast number of notes Jayakumar uses to create a colourful palate: “… their feathers unfolden, are the green and the purple, the blue and the golden” reads the last line of the stanza. The abrupt ending is so brilliantly precise that a gasp from the audience is heard. 

With each movement, we see Jayakumar exploring texture, counterpoint and technical skills, melodic lines flowing from player to player with superb shifts in harmony that instantly change our mood. It’s a wonderful first quartet, and the musicians take great joy in mastering Jayakumar’s intricate and detailed scoring, reveling in the melodies. 

The Haydn is a great counterbalance; its warm solid harmonies and traditional ‘violin melody over accompanying harmony’ structure feel like coming home to solid ground after soaring with the birds. There is not a pizzicato or glissando in sight, showing that while Jayakumar used every possible means to tell a story, music can also simply be an aural pleasure with no picture in mind.  

It might be called The Frog but I could not detect the famed croaking theme in the finale. Nonetheless, Lee’s perfectly even string crossings in this final movement are breathtaking. 

The encore is a Swedish polka arranged for the Danish String Quartet and it’s a delight. This hour-long program is perfect for a wintry night, another reminder that beautiful music well played can lift the spirit like nothing else. 

See what’s coming up on the WAAPA music program

Pictured top: The balance between the Darlington Quartet players – Semra Lee, Zak Rowntree, Sally Boud and Jon Tooby – is perfect. Photo: Stephen Heath

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Author —
Bourby Webster

Bourby Webster is the director of North Street Music – a creative production and artist development company. She is also the founder of Perth Symphony Orchestra. She is a graduate of Oxford University, the Royal College of Music and has an MBA from UWA. She is a professional violist, entrepreneur, concert promoter and producer. She can’t even look at a playground as she suffers chronic motion sickness.

Past Articles

  • Masterful soloists lift the mood

    WASO’s latest program promises intensity but Bourby Webster is surprised by its sense of optimism – and fun. So much so, she could do it all again.

  • Sure hands touch the heart

    Pianist Garrick Ohlsson has been wowing audiences around the world for almost 60 years and this concert is no exception. Bourby Webster savours every moment. 

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