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Interview with Lachlan & Ewen Bramble
Ian Perry speaks with Benaud Trio members, Lachlan and Ewen Bramble following the release of their debut recording.
Ian Perry: The two of you, Lachlan and Ewen, are brothers, your father was a highly respected horn player in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and your mother is an influential string teacher in Melbourne. Can you talk about the musical household that you grew up in.
Lachlan Bramble: We all played music in the Bramble house! Having parents who were musicians meant that our musical upbringing was not confined to lessons but happened all the time as there was always music playing in the house. I think developing a love and appreciation for music is just important as learning to play your scales! With a brass player in the house I was exposed to the music of Wagner, Mahler and Bruckner much more so than a violin student normally would. I also have many wonderful memories of attending MSO concerts and rehearsals from a very young age.
Ewen Bramble: I remember most nights of the week going off to sleep to the sounds of someone practising or having a lesson. There are a great number of little and not-so-little pieces of music I learnt very well through hearing them so often! Then as I grew older I became involved in this music first hand. I began learning the cello, after a while joining one or two of Mum’s string ensembles and orchestras and not long after that going to hear Dad and the MSO for the first time.
IP: Are there other musical Bramble siblings on the scene?
LB: Yes, Ewen and I have three sisters. They are also all string players. We joke that we were conceived in order to play the Schubert String Quintet: 2 violins, a viola and 2 cellos. We have done this many times as a family. It is probably the best piece of music there is!
IP: Those making studies of the backgrounds of experts and genius point out that frequently one star child “sucks the oxygen” from the development of other siblings. How have your parents dealt with sharing their support?
LB: I don’t know how our parents managed it but growing up I always felt that we received equal musical attention. I hope my siblings feel the same way! It must have been really tricky for our parents to make sure that we all practised.
EB: We were never pushed too hard. We were always encouraged to do our practice and all those types of things, but there wasn’t a competitive side to our environment growing up. Not only were our parents supportive of all of us equally, but I like to think we were all supportive of each other.
IP: As the children of busy and passionate musicians you did not necessarily grow up with material wealth but were culturally very rich. This seems like the environment that Suzuki is emulating.
LB: We were far from starving but no overseas family holidays either. We were taught the value and importance of music early on and that it was really worth the time and effort. Our parents showed endless generosity in buying us instruments, sending us off to music camps and driving us all over town for concerts
EB: Our parents provided everything we needed to live a normal and balanced childhood. They are very generous and giving!
IP: How did Benaud Trio form? How did you get together with Amir?
LB: The trio formed in early 2005 when Ewen and I were getting itchy feet about doing some serious chamber music. We were quite keen to enter the Australian Chamber Music Competition being held later that year. Forming a piano trio seemed like a great way to do it but there were no pianists amongst our siblings. Ewen and I both knew Amir from university and Ewen had played with him before. Amir had quite a reputation and was the pianist everyone wanted to play with. I was a bit nervous as to whether he would want to join us but he didn’t hesitate and the rest is history.
EB: My earliest memory of Amir was actually when I tagged along with some of Lachlan’s mates one afternoon to play a bit of cricket in the park. I remember thinking he was a great guy and lots of fun. When I began my study at the Conservatorium it was not long before we began playing Sonatas and other pieces regularly. Both Lachlan and I were great admirers of Amir’s playing and I recall a chilled-out summer evening we decided to ask Amir if he’d join us to play a few trios! Shortly after, we had our first rehearsal of Beethoven Op 1 G major at the Melbourne Conservatorium.
IP: I assume that as brothers, with so much shared musical experience, you know what the other is going to say musically. How does this fit in with Amir? What qualities does he bring to the ensemble?
LB: Ewen and I have been playing chamber music together since we were very small. Our mum gave us a very strong grounding in ensemble playing, teaching us many skills that we still use in every concert we give. Apart from being a sensational pianist generally, Amir has chameleon like ensemble skills. He can follow anyone anywhere and also take charge as needed. He is also obsessed with tone colour on the piano which is great as he can really compete with the strings in terms of variety, shade and nuance.
EB: Yes Lachlan and I know each other’s playing and musical sense very well and this makes playing good chamber music much easier. Not only does it stem from playing so much together over the years but also we have very similar musical tastes and instincts. Amir is such a high quality musician that we were very quickly able to build a very similar ‘musical bond’ as a trio.
IP: How do you achieve unanimity in your conception of a piece? Surely each member has a slightly different ideal of the piece?
LB: The short answer to this is by rehearsing it until we have it. Each of us comes to the first rehearsal having learnt our parts separately and also having listened to different recordings. How we proceed from there is normally decided by testing different ideas and approaches in context. It is normally apparent quite quickly what works and what doesn’t. And more often than not this evolves throughout the rehearsal process. Having said that, we have been playing trios together for seven years now and over that time we have developed a ‘Benaud’ approach to certain types of repertoire which we can work towards before we start rehearsing together.
EB: If one of us has a strong idea on something, the others are usually open to being convinced by it. Rather than talking about things to much it is just a good idea to play and be convinced – or not – by an idea. It is usually clear then whether something works or doesn’t.
IP: And then what happens in performance when the music takes on a life of its own?
LB: The best part of a performance is when things organically happen that were not rehearsed or even spoken about. It is a funny irony that the most successful outcome of the rehearsal process is when things don’t go exactly according to plan in performance and something wonderful happens. Music needs to be cultivated to a certain extent but no one wants to go to a concert and hear ‘one that we prepared earlier’. They want to hear the masterpiece live and grow in front of their eyes and ears.
EB: We love performing and thrive on it. Every performance gets a life of its own and I think it’s all to do with the energy that you can create. But not just raw energy – it’s all about how you channel it, letting it build and releasing it. The best performances are when you do something truly special with this energy.
IP: What have been the most stimulating experiences that you have had in chamber music?
LB: Benaud Trio really ‘found ourselves’ when we took a three week residency at the Banff Centre in Canada. This was soon after we started playing together and allowed us the time and space to find our musical personalities and work out a way to fit them together to create something that was hopefully greater than the sum of its parts. We were lucky enough to spend time with some pretty amazing tutors and give plenty of performances to try out all the new ideas. The opportunity to get away from normal life in a sabbatical type situation was a stimulating and irreplaceable experience for us.
EB: In those three weeks on the other side of the world we met and worked with some great musicians, learning so much from each and every one of them. We gave several performances at the Festival and also taught our new friends from the USA how to play cricket! All this whilst surrounded by the most amazing mountains and wildlife.
IP: And as a music-lover?
LB: I have a list of concerts that I have heard that I will never forget. Joshua Bell playing the Beethoven violin concerto in 1992 was the moment I decided I wanted to be a musician. Hearing the Takács Quartet play the Beethoven cycle in Sydney in 2001 was the moment I decided I wanted to be a chamber musician.
IP: People don’t realise that central to a lot of professional music making is like being a good worker bee: arriving on time; able to perform your task with efficiency and reliability and a minimum of fuss; in short, then, being a reliable cog in a collective musical apparatus. In chamber music all of the same professional rigours apply, but how is it different? What is the adjustment in approach required?
LB: To use a cricketing analogy, all good musicians need consistency and must be able to bowl a good line and length over after over. But to win the game and thrill the crowds you need to have a bit more excitement and spectacle than that. In orchestral playing when you are on a team of up to 100 players the consistency is very important as the conductor is there to provoke and inspire the x-factor required for an artistically memorable performance. In chamber music greater risk taking is required by each of the players to deliver the goods. Everyone has to be the strike bowler!
EB: There is a greater scope for individual expression (in chamber music) It is far easier to be spontaneous with three or four musicians than it is with 80 or 90! Within a small chamber group you of course answer to each other in a musical sense but that’s more-or-less it. The freedom to control the energy that I spoke of earlier is great.
IP: Boffins say that orchestral musicians should play as if they are playing chamber music; too often we hear chamber music played as if they are playing in an orchestra. What’s the difference in approach, in mentality, in focus, in creativity, expressiveness and freedom?
LB: It is true that at the highest level orchestras are able to function as chamber ensembles in the way different players listen and react to each other. Playing in a small chamber ensemble, however, allows the performers freedom that they will never have in an orchestra. With this comes the burden of extra responsibility requiring a more intense focus, but the rewards are worth it.
EB: If you think of the greatest orchestras I’d say they are indeed the ones in which every musician is completely in touch with what is going on across the entire orchestra. The conductor’s role is critical but not in the sense that each musician has his or her own interpretation of the ‘beat’: the conductor steers the creative energy of the ensemble, so in this regard great orchestras and great chamber ensembles are very similar in terms of their approach. There is of course a team element added in an orchestra. For instance, in a section of twenty violins there must be a unified approach to the expressiveness.
IP: Giving an object or an entity a name can have a metaphysical significance. We feel that an ensemble’s name has resonance with its members dreams and aspirations: In this I’m thinking of the Amadeus or the Guarneri Quartets. What is the significance of naming your ensemble after the great maestro in the bone coloured jacket?
LB: To be honest the Richie Benaud idea did start as a bit of a joke. We are all obviously big cricket fans and grew up with Richie’s unmistakable voice explaining the ins and outs of the great game summer after summer with his legendary insight and coolness under pressure. The more we thought about it though, the more appropriate it seemed for a chamber music group. On the one hand Richie is sophisticated, classy and a masterful performer but on the other he is down to earth and relates to people from all walks of life. These are some of the qualities that Benaud Trio seek to emulate.
EB: When choosing a name for our ensemble we really wanted something that reflected our personalities and the music we make as a unit. We were trying to avoid naming ourselves after some Melbourne landmark or feature. Whilst brainstorming possible names, the name Benaud came up and, as cricket lovers, we thought it would be perfect and also a little bit different. We never took ourselves too seriously and not only is it a nice tribute to the great man, Richie, but it’s also a bit of fun as well!
IP: So, do you think that great music and passionate performance is removed from normal experience?
LB: Not at all. Music like all art is a product of its time and more importantly a product of the real life experiences and emotions of the composers and performers. If played with great intent it then becomes a tangible and hopefully unforgettable real life experience for the audience. One of my favourite quotes is from Charlie Parker who said ‘if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn’. All musicians and composers need to be well in touch with life if they are going to touch the lives of others.
EB: I think the point at which an approach to music becomes something other than emotion, energy or purpose is the point at which it is likely to not translate to a listener. Like all forms of art music is created by somebody who lives and feels just like any listener.
IP: Does the economic rationalist argument for chamber music hold up? The thousands of hours, a lifetime of preparation for a concert that a comparatively small number of people can appreciate...Where is the sense in that? Surely the figures do not add up. OR is there something more to the value of this music?
LB: An accountant could never justify the existence of chamber music. Luckily there are all sorts of people (performers, promoters, record companies, philanthropists) as well as a large and appreciative audience who are willing to invest the money and time it takes to make chamber music happen. From the performer’s point of view it is very rare that a musician will earn their living solely from chamber music. Each of us in the trio does many things aside from chamber concerts to support ourselves, but playing such fantastic music and sharing that experience with each other and our audiences make it all worth it.
EB: I often joke that I wouldn’t have pursued performing music as my career if I wanted to be rich. But there was hardly any question! The way the world works it is very difficult not to apply economic criteria to almost everything we do – to put a dollar figure on everything. It is impossible to do this for music.
IP: The impact of a great ensemble performance is certainly different from a great orchestral performance. Can you talk about the differences?
LB: What a small ensemble misses in terms of power and breadth it more than makes up for with intimacy and delicacy. A trio or quartet performance is also a much more personal affair. In a small venue the audience can really feel like they can get to know and relate to the performers on an individual level.
EB: A listener can sit just a few metres from a musician yet still get the whole ‘picture’. This adds a special ingredient that isn’t really possible in an orchestral performance. This immediacy opens up another channel for communication from performer to listener.
IP: There has been a real rebirth of passion for chamber music in the last decade in Australia. What do you think that this is down to?
LB: A really important development for Australian chamber music was the formation of the Australian String Quartet in the mid ‘80s. All of a sudden we had a home-grown ensemble with a national presence but also receiving international acclaim. Shortly after that the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition started up which not only whipped up huge amounts of enthusiasm for chamber music amongst the general public but also provided aspiring young groups with the prospect of a career path. From that point on many groups have formed, put on concerts and made recordings with great success. It is fantastic to be part of such a vibrant chamber music community in Australia.
EB: The ASQ probably got the ball rolling – an ensemble of great quality with an Australian flavour – something that we could all take great pride in, not only through their performance but also as role models. They sowed the seeds in conservatoriums and other institutions around the country. Added to this the Melbourne International Chamber Music Competition and its Asia-Pacific competition definitely spawned many new ensembles around the country.
IP: The pieces on your debut CD are all contemporary Australian compositions; just the idea of that can frighten people. Yet the music is all immediately engaging and attractive and it doesn’t sell out your high ideals one iota. Hearing the music without knowing who the composers were, my immediate response was ‘What is that? I’ve got to hear more.’ This is an important challenge with modern “classical” music: to make something attractive and engaging but also aesthetically satisfying.
LB: Like everything, some music is more initially appealing than other music and this is fine. There was a bunch of modernist composers in Austria in the early 20th century followed by plenty more in ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s who had a different set of ideals and the result was music that was quite unappealing to listen to. Unfortunately the idea that new music is troublesome and not worth the bother has stuck with many people despite the fact that nearly all of the music being written today is accessible and instantly appealing. The best composers of course go way beyond attractive and instantly appealing and this is the sort of music that our generation of performers need to be promoting to the next generation of listeners.
EB: Of late there is a lot of great music being written by Australian composers. The onus is on performers to really explore the music and bring out the voice of the composer and really translate something interesting, exciting and new to an audience.
IP Could you talk about the compositions on your debut recording?
LB The music on our debut recording is representative of the diverse and wide ranging influences on new Australian music. The Australian people are a wonderful mish-mash of cultures and backgrounds and so is the music. Each of the four pieces has completely contrasting extra-musical influences which make for a varied and hopefully interesting album of music. Ross Edwards’ inspiration is from the natural world, the unique Australian landscapes both macro and micro. Along with Peter Sculthorpe, Edwards was one of the first Australian composers to develop a musical language that is immediately recognisable as Australian. Paul Stanhope’s background in choral music led him to basing his piano trio around a Monteverdi madrigal – an appropriate salute to the Western art music tradition. Matthew Hindson’s music has a plugged in and switched on feel confronting our technology obsessed culture in a gritty and visceral way. The influence of pop music is never far away. Lots of fantastic and historically important music has been written for film over the last century and for many people, this is the primary way that they experience instrumental music. Film scoring and chamber music are perhaps strange bed fellows which is why we commissioned our friend Nicholas Buc to bring the two musical worlds together in Trailer Music.
It has been very helpful to be in contact with Matthew Hindson, Ross Edwards and Paul Stanhope during the process of rehearsing, performing and recording their music. Trailer Music, however, was different in that it was written especially for us. Nicholas Buc is a friend of ours (we all studied together) and is the star behind our notorious pop covers that have been such a success on YouTube. Nick is familiar with our style of playing and we are familiar with his style of composition so both parties knew what we were getting ourselves in for! Nick is great at writing music for TV and film so his idea to write a piece for trio in a film score style was immediately endorsed by us. Not a common fusion, but one we thought was well worth exploring. Nick also plays piano and violin so he knows exactly what will work for each part.
IP Can you talk about your connection with the repertoire for your second recording?
LB When approached for a follow up recording the choice of repertoire came quite quickly. Dvořák’s ‘Dumky’ trio was one of the first pieces we played together as a group and each time since then have felt a special affinity with the work. As a companion, the Smetana is a more recent addition to our repertoire, but also a piece that we clicked with. There is something incredibly fulfilling about performing music that is romantic with a capital R. Both Dvořák and Smetana wore their hearts proudly on their sleeve and it is this unashamed expression that we aim to transmit in our live concerts and recordings. The inclusion of a cover version of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ is far more than a play on words. Freddie Mercury’s masterpiece is grand in scope, operatic in design and has the same rawness, sorrow and boldness of spirit of the great Bohemian romantics.
EB: Dvořák ‘Dumky’ is a piece of music I have lived with all my life and have a very strong connection with. During my high school years I performed it with both my older sister Merewyn on violin and then a few years later with my younger sister Rhianwen. Most recently, of course, I have been playing it with Lachlan. Throughout all these years and revisiting the work with different members of my family, it has become a very special piece of music for me. I don’t have the same long history with the Smetana Trio but I have very quickly come to love it. Its raw emotive elements and power are similar to the Dvořák and as a trio we particular love playing this stuff! Both of these works I hope to play again many, many times for the rest of my life – they will never grow stale and there will always be new things to discover and learn in them.