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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Ahead of Dubai gig, Modigliani Quartet reflect on their decade of success

Ahead of their UAE debut, the Modigliani Quartet reflect on more than a decade of success and retaining the vibrancy and modernism of their artist namesake, writes Rob Garratt

The Modigliani Quartet play Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage on Saturday. From left, Laurent Marfaing (viola), Amaury Coeytaux (first violinist), Loic Rio (violins) and François Kieffer (cello) Marie Staggat
The Modigliani Quartet play Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage on Saturday. From left, Laurent Marfaing (viola), Amaury Coeytaux (first violinist), Loic Rio (violins) and François Kieffer (cello) Marie Staggat

Friends and business make notoriously unruly bedfellows, if that old Portuguese proverb is to be believed, but what of friends in art and sound? While rock and pop groups are most often formed as conglomerates of like-minded acquaintances, classical ensembles are traditionally run rather more like corporations; applicants for a distinct, defined instrumental role are meritocratically selected on the basis of technical proficiency above all else.

Not the case with the Modigliani Quartet, a group of Parisian study mates who gravitated together to become one of the most fêted young string quartets in the world today.

Since forming in 2003, the ensemble has released 10 albums and has played many of the world’s most prestigious concert venues, including London’s Wigmore Hall, Philharmonie de Paris and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

On Saturday, Modigliani make their UAE debut at Dubai’s One&Only Royal Mirage, as part of the weekly World Classical Music Series.

The word most frequently used to describe the ensemble might be “youthful” – but “youthful in the best possible way”, opined a 2015 Guardian review – and it is this sense of verve and possibility the group’s moniker hopes to capture. A contemporary of Picasso on the early 20th century Paris scene, Amedeo Modigliani was a vibrant modernist Italian painter and sculptor who attracted note for his piercing portrait work, before he died in 1920, at the age of 35.

The Modigliani name is also distinctly Italian – perhaps a fitting nod to the vintage Italian instruments each of the quartet’s members touts as a badge of authenticity.

Loic Rio plays a 1734 violin by Alessandro Gagliano, while viola player Laurent Marfaing sports a 1660 model by Luigi Mariani and François Kieffer has a 1706 cello by Matteo Goffriller. The quartet’s newest member Amaury Coeytaux plays a 1773 violin by Giovanni Battista Guadagnini.

Coeytaux joined as first violinist in December; he stepped down from his high-profile post as concertmaster of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France to enter the fray after founding member, Philippe Bernhard, announced his retirement from music last year. If there was any heart-wrestling in the decision, Coeytaux is not prepared to show it. Described as a “friend” of the musicians, the 32-year-old virtuoso orbited the same circles at the Conservatoire de Paris where the founding members met and graduated from, in the early years of the millennium.

Coeytaux’s arrival then, falls somewhere between parachuting in a celebrity name, and calling up a long-lost associate.

“For many reasons we never wanted to give up,” he says, speaking from Paris during a break from rehearsals.

“To have four people that work together, through the ups and downs, there was always something that was enough to keep [them] on the path, going in the same direction, doing what we as musicians have always wanted to do. There really has not been any issue.”

In spite of the Italian moniker, the group remains unmistakably French. In what almost feels like a playful national cliché cooked up for my benefit, Coeytaux twice compares the creative process of music to food and dining.

Concert programming is a notoriously delicate, political balancing act, with weary musicians inevitably forced to compromise their artistic yearnings to learn and perform ever braver, more obscure and demanding work, in favour of the familiar demands of the concert promoter’s audience.

In this, Coeytaux might imagine he has a Michelin star, rather than a 240-year-old violin. “I would compare it to the way a chef would decide what to serve in a very good restaurant,” he begins. “You of course have a main dish, and you think: What goes with it, what will bring the tastes out?

“If you put a heavy entrée and a heavy dessert with a heavy main dish, it of course doesn’t work. It’s all about balance – but it needs a line tying it together, you cannot mix some tastes. It’s exactly the same with music. You go through this same process, and when you get it right, the public will follow us.”

There will certainly be much to chew on throughout the quartet’s programme in Dubai, which represents the worthiest form of compromise. The sonic feast starts with the frenzied drama of Schubert’s Quartettsatz – fittingly the first movement of a string quartet the Viennese master never finished – before the main serving of Brahms’s String Quartet No. 1. Published in 1873 when he was already 40-years-old, the work’s haunting, urgent mood portrays the efforts Brahms expended in breaking free from the ideal conception Beethoven set for the same configuration a half-century earlier – reportedly tearing up 20 string quartets before authoring this “first” work.

After the fleeting, yet dense, palate cleanser of Puccini’s I Crisantemi – opening the concert’s second half – this set menu concludes with a dessert particularly bold in flavour. A homage to his departed sister Fanny, Mendelssohn’s String Quartet No. 6 was to be his last major work, before the German composer himself passed away two months later, aged 38, after a series of strokes.

The piece is one of the first Modigliani chose to record, captured on their third album, simply titled Mendelssohn and released in 2010.

“One of the great things about music is that is takes time to mature,” ponders Coeytaux. “Even with pieces we’ve played many, many times, we’ll always have a dress rehearsal before concerts, there’s always new things to discover – this is a very dissected, very specific, detailed work. The fact is that you can always push it further, you never feel you’ve realised or seen everything, within a piece there’s something always still evolving.”

Last month the quartet celebrated the release of their tenth recording, Schumann: String Quartets Op. 41, which collects the romantic giant’s first three quartets. Modigliani visit the UAE during a brief break between a European tour – which included a notable debut at the Berliner Philharmonie – and a stint in the United States, capped by a return visit to Carnegie Hall, more than a decade since their 2006 debut there, a result of winning first prize at the prestigious Young Concert Artists Audition. Since then, the ensemble’s profile has steadily rocketed. Earlier this year, Modigliani became the first string quartet to perform in the main hall of the newly opened Elbphilharmonie Hamburg. Next month, the musicians will start a series of masterclasses for students at the institution to which they owe it all – the Conservatoire de Paris, where they all met 15 years earlier.

By the end of 2017/18 season, the quartet will have performed more than 1,000 concerts in 30 countries, playing to a combined audience of 100,000. But whether playing a historic concert hall or Dubai hotel ballroom, the quartet’s commitment to quality remains consistent. “The venue doesn’t really affect the performance,” says Coeytaux.

“The public is expecting the same thing anywhere you go – to hear the music and the passion, to discover something, to really have an inner trip, a real experience. That’s what brings them to the concert – to dream, to see things, have goose bumps – this is expected anywhere, and that’s what we try to do everywhere we go.”

Modigliani Quartet perform at One&Only Royal Mirage, Dubai, on Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are available online from Dh250, at www.dcc.ae

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