Chamber music: Two Songs & Piano QuartetBy Stephanie Eslake

You’d ordinarily find musicians of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra performing in the expanse of the Federation Concert Hall. But this March has something a little bit different in store for concertgoers, who can follow the players out to Mona for a series of live music with a backdrop of fine art.

One such player is Principal First Violin Jennifer Owen, who will be part of a TSO-led chamber group crafting the Nolan Gallery into their newest stage. It’s all part of Brahms Chamber Music at Mona – a series of intimate performances spanning 7-9 March.

Jennifer will perform alongside violist Douglas Coghill, cellist Jonathan Békés, pianist Ying Ho, and mezzo-soprano Jane Edwards. Their program features Brahms exclusively: Two Songs for Voice, Viola and Piano; and Piano Quartet No. 2 in A.

“The two Brahms songs were already in the back of my mind when we were asked to submit programs for consideration for this series of chamber concerts,” Jennifer says.

Jane had previously told Jennifer that “she loves these songs”. It’s a telling relationship to have with the works when considering the reason Brahms composed them.

“Brahms wrote one song for the wedding of his friend – violinist Joseph Joachim to Amalie Schneeweiss – in 1863; and the other decades later with the intention to help the couple's troubled marriage,” Jennifer shares.

The piano quartet on the program also holds a romantic connection to the songs – it was premiered in the same year as the marriage. The TSO describes it as monumental, with “some of Brahms’ most beautiful music for chamber forces”.

“Brahms writes beautifully for the violin,” Jennifer agrees. Her own love affair with the composer has spanned the course of her life; the romance was sparked when she heard a Brahms sonata during her teenage years. Later, as an undergraduate student, she ventured deeper into the repertoire, learning the piano trios and string quartets, quintets, and sextets.

There’s no doubt Jennifer has performed Brahms widely through her impressive career, which has in the past awarded her with leading roles in the Houston Symphony, Richardson Symphony, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and here – of course – the TSO.

Despite her experience and love for the music, Jennifer reckons the upcoming piano quartet still comes with its own challenges – namely, its duration, which competes with that of Brahms’ first symphony.

“While playing it, or listening to it personally, time flies. But you can look up at the end, and realise 50 minutes has gone by! So rehearsing a work of this length is going to be fatiguing, just because there is a lot of music to get through.”

She’s certainly not in it alone, with such talented musicians by her side – albeit fewer than usual. Of her larger-scale TSO performances, Jenny explains “you usually have a number of violins all playing the same part”.

“These players practice to find a unified sound, which means matching and blending with the other players on the same part around them.”

There’s a beauty to be found in the collaborative nature of symphonic works. Similarly, the individuality afforded to chamber musicians can bring its own special quality to the pieces. Perhaps it’s why Jennifer balances both styles of music-making throughout her life.

Along with a number of other TSO artists, Jennifer performs in the Van Diemen’s Band – a relatively new player in the local chamber music scene. It’s rapidly grown into a familiar name on concert programs of Dark Mofo through to the Tasmanian Chamber Music Festival.

In fact, the week before her Brahms concert, Jennifer will also perform with VDB at the Italian Baroque Sessions Academy and Festival.

“Chamber music – be it baroque, classical, romantic or contemporary – is rewarding to play because you can make an individual and personal contribution to the musical interpretation.”

It’s obviously a treat for Jennifer. And in the Nolan Gallery, it’ll also present a rare opportunity to those who come to listen – and to watch.

“You may be able to sit close enough to the musicians to see their fingers working, to see facial expressions and silent communication, to hear the players breathing change as a particular passage is played,” Jennifer reveals.

One can only imagine how this must feel to the players. Still, Jennifer is calm about the prospect of you watching her every move – and she admits it’ll bring an extra dimension to the concert experience.

“It can be fascinating to get an appreciation for the intricate details that are all part of the ultimate musical performance”.

In some ways, though, the concert is bigger than the sum of its parts: while on one level it’s a fine showcase of musical expertise, the Brahms series also unites two powerhouses of the Tasmanian arts industry. And to Jennifer, this brings a reminder that “all kinds of art are important and valid and interesting”.

“Hopefully, people who wouldn’t otherwise come to hear a TSO performance will be curious to come hear something at MONA,” she says.

“And hopefully, people who haven’t otherwise visited MONA will come and take in more than just a classical concert performance!”

Jennifer Owen

Two Songs & Piano Quartet will be performed at 7.30pm March 9 in the Nolan Gallery as part of Brahms Chamber Music at MONA.