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Playing with real treasures

17 July 2023

When he was studying viola at university, Christopher Cartlidge used to busk for beer money. Now the musician travels the country (and the world) playing a rare beauty with Australia’s premier string quartet. 

Christopher Cartlidge is enamoured of a beauty called Fabio. Like the male model who launched a thousand romance novels, his Fabio is Italian and powerfully built. But this one is also subtle, with hidden depths – and more than 200 years old. 

“Fabio is a brilliant quartet viola that I’m fortunate to be in possession of thanks to the generosity of (South Australian cultural centre) UKARIA,” Cartlidge says.  

“I’ve nicknamed him Fabio because he is fabulous! He sings with such power and clarity but also I never feel like I’ve reached his limit — there is always more to find.”  

As a member of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) since 2021, Cartlidge has the privilege of playing the rare instrument crafted by renowned luthier Giovanni Battista Guadagnini in the 18th century. In fact, all four musicians play Guadagnini instruments, a matched set and an extraordinary gift “made available in perpetuity to Australia’s most outstanding string quartet”. 

The ASQ, which also includes violinists Dale Barltrop and Francesca Hiew and cellist Michael Dahlenburg, have clearly earned their stellar reputation, with invitations to perform at prestigious festivals overseas, as well as regular national tours. 

The awesome foursome will be back in Perth at the end of this month for Florescence, “a celebration of the string quartet across continents and contexts” that will feature works from Australian composer Justin Williams, Austrian Joseph Haydn, Englishman Henry Purcell and Czech Antonin Dvorak. 

Julie Hosking asked Cartlidge to share a little of his musical journey ahead of the concert. 

Julie Hosking: Tell us a little about your background and how you got into music.  
Christopher Cartlidge: Music was a big part of my family life. Mum’s family is very musical — I didn’t realise how special it was at the time — but everyone could play the piano or guitar and sung boisterously! My parents made sure we all chose a musical instrument, whether it be the euphonium, xylophone or piano. I picked the violin mostly because my oldest sister played it and I wanted whatever she had but I also found myself playing xylophone in the school band and the organ at church. After many years on the violin, I found myself asking for a viola. Best decision I ever made!  

JH: Why the viola? What is it about this instrument that speaks to you? 
CC: I kind of fell into the viola. I was getting very tall, my arms getting very long, and some wise teachers thought the viola might suit me. At a certain point, enough people had suggested I give it a go, so I just did it. And, of course, the first thing that happened was I found myself in a string quartet. Not knowing how to read tenor clef, making things up, but I was having an absolutely brilliant time!  There is this magic to the viola — it’s got this secret colour that only you as the player can bring out. 

JH: You studied at the Tasmanian Conservatorium of Music and the Australian National Academy of Music. What kind of grounding did that give you? 
CC: Tassie was wonderful. The university and my incredible teacher, Josephine St Leon, were so supportive. I was loaned a beautiful viola by the university and when I wasn’t practising, I was in the Elizabeth Street Mall busking with mates to pay for beer! There was such a nurturing vibe amongst the students that really pushed me to work hard and achieve my best.  

ANAM was brilliant. An amazing opportunity to be surrounded by inspiring and generous people. I distinctly remember there was always someone conveniently procrastinating at the same time as me! Of course, my favourite memories are of playing string quartets. A very memorable Mozart K.421 and Beethoven Op.127 with William Hennessy. And, of course, ANAM was where I first met Francesca and Michael, who are now my colleagues in the ASQ.

JH: How did you come to join ASQ? 
CC: It’s been a little over two years now since I joined the quartet and it’s gone both very quickly and very slowly! I have known Dale, Michael and Francesca for many years — we’d often get together to play chamber music together. I guess they thought I would be a good fit and I’m definitely glad they did.

JH: Prior to ASQ you were with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. What’s it like playing with a quartet compared with a full orchestra? 
CC: I always felt great pride being part of the MSO’s viola section. Essentially the ingredients are the same, although a string quartet is much more distilled and agile. Like a speedboat versus a vast ship — although that’s a clumsy analogy. I love the sense of ownership in a quartet and I feel composers such as Mozart, Beethoven and Shostakovich reserve their most expressive and intimate writing for this medium.  

The Australian String Quartet play with a matched set of Guadagnini string instruments. Photo supplied

JH: You play a 1783 Guadagnini viola. Can you describe what it’s like?  
CC: Perhaps this is the moment for a speedboat analogy? The Guadagnini is a dream!  I also marvel at the instrument’s 240-year history and the responsibility I feel to ensure that we can enjoy it for many hundreds of years more. 

JH: Tell us a little about the four pieces being performed for Florescence.  
CC: I love all four pieces. It’s a real joy to begin our program with Justin’s exciting work. Clever and engaging writing, clearly coming from a composer who knows the string quartet, and the viola, intimately. Haydn’s quartet is packed full of expression, drama and edge. Perhaps not what one might expect. Purcell’s sparkling fantasy is a beautiful testament to his genius and creativity.  

As for my favourite? It’s always the one we’ve played most recently. Today it’s Dvořák.  Such a joyous and exciting quartet. I particularly love the third movement. I feel as if I’ve put on my favourite wool jumper and sunk into a chair by the fire (with my beautiful dog Dobby by my feet, of course).

JH: There is a lot of touring with ASQ. Do you enjoy this part of your work? 
CC: I love it! We are so fortunate to be able to travel as part of our job. I’ve seen more of this amazing country in the last two years than in the past 20. It’s especially rewarding playing in front of audiences that may not have experienced a live quartet before. My favourite performances are those for school children and families. 

JH: What piece would you most like to perform with ASQ that you haven’t yet? 
CC: I want to play everything! There aren’t enough years left of my life for me to play all the things I want, although I would like to make my way through all of the quartets by Bartók, Mozart and Beethoven.  

JH: What is on the horizon for you?  
CC: We are very excited to be performing upon invitation this September at the MITO Settembre Musica festival in Italy, in the two cities of Turin and Milan. It’s made even more exciting for me to visit the city where my viola was made, Turin. And, at the beginning of 2024 it’s a thrill to be performing at the Amsterdam String Quartet Biennale — the world’s largest celebration of the string quartet artform. 

The Australian String Quartet perform Florescence at Hackett Hall, WA Museum Boola Bardip, on 31 July 2023 

Pictured top: Christopher Cartlidge feels a strong sense of history, and responsibility, playing such a rare and beautiful viola. Photo supplied

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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