Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 26 May 2019

Belgrade Philharmonic String Quartet: From casual collective to world-class group

The Belgrade Philharmonic String Quartet this week make their debut outside of Europe with two distinct performances at Abu Dhabi Classics. Here's what to expect.
Belgrade Philharmonic String Quartet. Marko Djokovic
Belgrade Philharmonic String Quartet. Marko Djokovic

Formed just four years ago, the Belgrade Philharmonic String Quartet have quickly become established as one of Eastern Europe’s leading small ensembles. But the group gathered without such an ambition, as a casual collective of four players from the parent Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra, which was established back in 1923.

“It was a spontaneous reaction,” says cellist Aleksandar Latkovic. “It’s something like when you wake up in the morning and you have to wash your face and take a shower to feel good and healthy to start your day – we needed to play in a string quartet for health reasons. When you play in a big orchestra, you also feel the need to share your music in a smaller group. And the string quartet is the perfectly formed ensemble.”

The group’s talents did not go unnoticed and the quartet were quickly adopted by the orchestra’s director – and Serbia’s minister of culture – Ivan Tasovac to represent their city and nation officially.

“It’s a great honour and responsibility,” added Latkovic. “And it gives us the opportunity to play in different countries and places such as Abu Dhabi.”

The first concert

The quartet’s first UAE appearance, at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Wednesday, October 28, will replicate the complete programme of their first CD, which was released in June.

The opening half will present Beethoven’s Tenth String Quartet (op 74), otherwise known as the Harfen Quartet. “For every string quartet of whatever time in history, Beethoven’s works are like the Bible,” Latkovic says. “It’s something you always come to, a big reference point in the heaviest ideals of music, and the beginning of technical virtuosity of all four members of the quartet – before Beethoven a quartet was basically a lead violin, and the others.”

Rather than the lauded “late quartets”, the Serbian troupe opted to perform a work from Beethoven’s “middle period”, written in 1809. “It was a dramatic time in Europe – Napoleon invaded Austria,” Latkovic says.

“But at the same time, there’s not much dramatic or heroic in the music. It sounds like looking at this confusion – a lot of variations and different modes in every movement. I think that’s why we chose it.” Choosing to complete the CD – and the Abu Dhabi’s concert – with Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet (op 115), alongside a guest clarinettist, was a thematic choice.

“Brahms is very well known as the successor of Beethoven in Vienna,” adds Latkovic. In a masterclass with great Russian cellist Valentin Berlinsky, Latkovic was once asked to sum up Brahms in one word.

“I decided ‘noble’,” he remembers. “But Berlinsky said ‘daydreams’ – Brahms is not really being awake, but not really dreaming, being somewhere in between. I think of this every time I perform.”

The second concert

The Belgrade quartet’s second performance, on Thursday, October 29, will take the musicians out in the open, under the stars of the Liwa Desert at Qasr Al Sarab. And for the occasion, the group have prepared an eclectic collection of fresh repertoire inspired by the unique setting.

Closing the evening will be Ravel’s only String Quartet, selected because, during its composition in 1903, the French impressionist was said to be influenced by One Thousand and One Nights. “We love to imagine that it was inspired by a desert somewhere similar to where we will be going,” says Latkovic.

The quartet enjoyed learning the piece so much, they are considering recording it on their next release.

“Ravel’s main thing is being a great composer for orchestra, but we can say with historical distance, it’s a shame he only did one quartet,” adds the ­cellist.

The group will again be joined by a fifth musician for Carl Maria von Weber’s Clarinet Quintet (op 34), a piece full of “delicious details” most often performed orchestrally. The evening will open with a relatively unknown piece by Serbian composer Dejan Despic, Homage to Stevan Mokranjac. “This piece is on our programme because it represents one of Serbia’s biggest composers paying tribute to another,” explains ­Latkovic.

“Mokranjac was the first important Serbian composer ever, from the late 19th century. He founded the first choir and composed a lot of choral music. Despic’s tribute is like a medley or a ‘best-of’ from his most important choral works, put together in this wonderful piece for sting quartet. It gives a great balance between Serbian traditions and the contemporary – and a great deal of technical challenges for us.”

Belgrade Philharmonic String Quartet perform at Manarat Al Saadiyat on Wednesday, October 28 and at Qasr Al Sarab on Thursday, October 29 both at 8pm. Tickets cost from Dh80 (students Dh30), see abudhabiclassics.ae

rgarratt@thenational.ae

Updated: October 26, 2015 04:00 AM

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