Violinist Pekka Kuusisto talks to Britten Sinfonia about his blowtorch skills and cephalopod ambitions.

Britten Sinfonia welcomes back the violinist Pekka Kuusisto as rehearsals begin for the Concentric Paths tour with composer, pianist and conductor Thomas Adès.  Pekka has worked with Britten Sinfonia a number of times before but ahead of this tour they asked him a few questions to help us all get to know him better! 

What has been the highlight of your career so far?
Playing in the forest surrounding Sibelius’ home, dressed up as a spruce.
When are you happiest?
At about 3 p.m. on most days.
What is your greatest fear?
The end of the world, I guess.
What is your earliest musical memory?
Listening to Rasputin by Boney M.
Which living person do you most admire, and why?
Barack Obama. He is facing a giant political machine that gets a lot of its fuel from ignorance – and still manages to send a message that it’s useful to actually know stuff.
If you were an animal what would you be?
A squid. A giant one. Imagine the ease of playing Paganini things with all those tentacles.
What is your guiltiest pleasure?
Singing Coldplay tunes while accompanying myself with arpeggiator synths.
How do you relax away from the concert platform?
For instance by singing Coldplay tunes while accompanying myself with arpeggiator synths.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Caramelising the top of Crème Brûlée with a blowtorch and getting it right the first time.
What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Don’t eat yellow snow. 
Pekka performs Thomas Adès Concerto for Violin (Concentric Paths) with Britten Sinfonia at Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday 27 February. Click here for more details and to book tickets.

Emerson String Quartet prepare for premiere of Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters

Bringing a new piece of music to life is a collaborative, communicative process. Composers invariably meet with the musicians premiering their work in order to discuss issues arising with the score and troubleshoot problems. For The Four Quarters, the new string quartet by Thomas Adès, that moment was in late January, when Adès stopped over to see the Emerson String Quartet in New York, en route from Miami to London. ‘I think we absorbed a sense of what the piece was about, as is often the case when we work together with a composer for the first time,’ says Eugene Drucker, violinist in the Emerson Quartet, of the session. ‘Tom was very nice and wasn’t expecting an absolutely polished performance, since it was still seven weeks until the premiere.’

Instead, the quartet had the opportunity to further realise the composer’s musical vision for The Four Quarters, which was commissioned by the Carnegie Hall, New York. ‘It has been a challenge to learn in certain ways,’ says Drucker. ‘The piece’s complexity comes from the rhythm, the way the measures are arranged. It’s sort of a new language we’ve been learning.’ The quartet discussed technical aspects of the work with Adès. For example, in the last movement, “The Twenty-fifth Hour”, the violins are required to alternate quickly between ‘artificial harmonics and normal notes’. Adès was ‘looking for a certain effect’ with this compositional device, says Drucker, and ‘it became clear that he was imagining a kind of yodelling effect, so I changed the way I was playing it.’

The meeting was also a chance for Thomas Adès to discuss the new work’s themes with the quartet, though Drucker suggests that the piece’s loose programmatic aspect could be more for the listeners than the musicians. ‘I don’t think it is something Tom wants to pin down exactly,’ he says. ‘The title refers to four times of day, but I’m not sure how much importance he wants us as performers to attach to the movement titles. Perhaps he’d like the audience to think of those titles while listening to the piece.’ Regardless of the technical challenges or the thematic aspects of the work, Drucker says that what has struck him most about The Four Quarters is the way ‘the beauty of its textures and the sense of overarching shape comes across in each of the four movements.’

The process of discovery Drucker describes is part of what appeals to the Emerson String Quartet about performing new music. ‘We play one or two contemporary works a year, and sometimes we carry over a work from the previous season, as we’ll do with Tom’s piece,’ says Drucker, although the ‘main thrust of our activity is with the standard repertoire.’ The two pieces framing The Four Quarters in this concert are as familiar to the Emerson Quartet as the Adès is new. The quartet have won Grammy awards for recordings of both the complete Mendelssohn (2005) and Beethoven (1997) quartets. Eugene Drucker describes the third Op.44 Mendelssohn quartet as a pleasure to play even though it’s demanding technically’, while Beethoven’s Op.131 is ‘one of the great works of the entire string quartet literature’.

It is unusual for a quartet to frequently perform new music without making it a speciality, but the Emersons have always questioned long-held traditions, as can be seen in their name, taken from a poet-philosopher rather than a composer or instrumentalist. A well-known Emerson String Quartet innovation is their on-stage set up. The three upper strings stand while cellist David Finckel’s chair sits on a podium. The idea to break away from the conventional seating plan arose during the quartet’s 25th anniversary season in 2001, as Eugene Drucker explains: ‘We were performing six Haydn quartets at the Alice Tully Hall in the Lincoln Center, New York, and we were concerned that the programme would not have sonic impact enough to engage the audience’s attention.’ They hit on the idea of standing and found that ‘there’s something about getting our instruments farther from the floor of the stage that makes the sound project further.’

 Tim Woodall © 2011

The Emerson String Quartet performs Thomas Ades’ The Four Quarters alongside works by Mendelssohn and Beethoven on Thursday 7 April. Click here for full details and to book.