Why does the Quartet play standing up?
If you’ve attended concerts by the Quartet, you may have noticed that unlike most string quartets they always stand while playing. 1st Violinist Helene Pohl explains how this practice began and what the Quartet believes it adds to the performance:
When and why did the New Zealand String Quartet decide to stand?
1995. We were teaching a student group that February at our summer school who were having trouble expressing the swing of the piece they were studying (Borodin Quartet 2nd movement – should be a very swingy piece). One by one we leaped up on stage and tried to get them to move with the music. Then one of us pulled one of the violinists to their feet, and the others did the same.
Suddenly their music came to life, their sounds opened up and they were playing with much greater freedom. This got us thinking! We tried it at a private concert that April and haven’t looked back since. The trick was getting someone to design a foldable podium for Rolf, our cellist, which we can carry around. The first version was a platform on unscrewable bed legs, and now we have Version 2 with foldable legs.
What are the benefits – and drawbacks – of standing?
The benefits are greater freedom, better physical use of our bodies, the ability to move so we can project more (especially the viola) or to let someone else come to the fore (especially me, who can stand back for a 2nd violin solo). Rolf, our cellist, says he can hear the difference in our sounds when we rise out of our rehearsal chairs (usually we do dress rehearsals standing, but sit for the others).
The biggest drawback is having to lug the podium around the world while touring. Luckily we have two strong men in the group who do most of the heavy lifting, but we’ve had some amusing experiences with that bit of furniture…. London Tube stations with broken escalators spring to mind and luggage storage lockers in various train stations that aren’t big enough (once we had to make friends with a sausage vendor to be allowed to park the thing behind his cart while we went into town to the violin shop).
What chamber groups would benefit most from standing? Would you sometimes advise against?
String quartets mainly, although if the height difference between the members is too great, it’s not a good idea. We are lucky that our three upper voices are about the same height, and our cellist is tall, therefore needing less ‘lift’ (i.e. not a huge podium).
Groups with piano are tricky, because you can block the audience’s view of the pianist. We generally sit for piano quintets. Also some people actually have better playing posture while sitting, so then it’s definitely better to sit well than stand hunched or crooked. But I think my posture has improved as a result of performing this way.
Are you aware of other chamber groups – string quartets and others – that stand for performance?
The Emerson Quartet told us they began standing after seeing us do it. (I don’t know if they still do.) I’ve seen photos of other standing quartets since. Of course string orchestras have been standing for much longer – it’s quite accepted for them, especially in the early music scene. Those guys showed many of us ‘traditionalists’ how to do good rhythm – maybe the standing helped them too!