The Violin Channel recently caught up with the 2019 Banff International String Quartet Competition joint-1st prize winning ensemble, the London-based Marmen String Quartet.
Comprising violinists Johannes Marmen and Ricky Gore, violist Bryony Gibson-Cornish and cellist Steffan Morris, the Marmens are former major prize winners at the Bordeaux and Joachim International Chamber Music Competitions.
MARMEN QUARTET | BEETHOVEN | STRING QUARTET NO. 14 IN C# MINOR OP. 131 | 4TH MVT | 2019 BANFF INTERNATIONAL STRING QUARTET COMPETITION | JOINT 1ST PRIZE
Congratulations! How does it feel to be a 1st prize winning ensemble from the prestigious Banff International String Quartet Competition?
Bryony: "It still feels surreal ... we put our hearts and souls into quartet and preparing for this competition, so it is hugely rewarding for that dedication to have been recognised.
For me personally, BISQC was the only string quartet competition that I had heard about as a teenager and it seemed like an unattainable goal when I was looking at it as an individual. After joining the Marmen Quartet in 2017 and applying for BISQC this year, it was exciting to be accepted into the competition, let alone advancing to the final and winning the whole thing!"
What will be your best long lasting memory from this week?
Johannes: "The moment at the awards ceremony when Barry Shiffman, the Director of the competition, said “we have two winners” ... when it dawned on us not only that we had won, but that we’re sharing the prize with our wonderful friends in the Viano String Quartet.
The immediate response of all eight of us was not to collect the award, not to celebrate within our own quartet, but to rise from our chairs and embrace the members of the other quartet in an outburst of utter happiness and delight ... it was the best way in which we could have possibly won this competition"
How did you get your name? And how did you come together as an ensemble?
Johannes: "Ricky and I started the quartet at the Royal College of Music in London ... since then we’ve had a few member changes.
Steffan joined in 2016 when he was back in London after studies in Vienna ... Bryony had arrived in London after studies at Juilliard and joined in 2017.
Regarding the name, we took the easy way out and adapted my last name, with the plan of figuring something more creative out down the line. There were a few alternatives at one point before Bryony joined the quartet, the most serious one being vetoed forcefully by our girlfriends"
What is the most important lessons you learnt from your preparation for this competition?
Bryony: "Remembering that we all have our own process of preparation is a really important lesson: we all experienced ups and downs in the weeks before the competition, but everyone was supportive throughout this time.
I always try to remind myself that we have to be hard on ourselves in the practice room but easy on ourselves in performance.
We also find that play throughs are a crucial element of being prepared for a competition - by creating a time frame that is similar to BISQC and performing repertoire for our partners, friends and family, we get a feel for how to pace ourselves"
What tips and advice do you have for practicing to help achieve the perfect synchronization the ensemble displayed this week?
Johannes: "I don’t think the aim should ever be to achieve perfect synchronization at a technical level, it should rather follow as a result of everyone’s commitment to a common interpretation of the music.
Whenever we have technical difficulties, we analyze the problem and it usually boils down to a lack of unity in our musical ideas.
Obviously a lot of the time it’s necessary to work out what exactly needs to be done technically to achieve a certain musical result, but when doing that it’s important not to lose track of the musical nucleus."
What tips and advice do you have for keeping one’s focus on the music even under stressful situations such as a competition?
Johannes: "One thing that has seemed to work quite well for us is to continue to evolve our interpretations as the competition approaches and even during the competition itself, rather than just making what we already have more technically perfect. This keeps you inspired and in love with the music, rather than increasingly anxious about the execution of it.
Another piece of advice is not to expect your group to suddenly be able to play at a much higher technical level than before. Becoming a better quartet is a very long-term process so there’s no use in putting unrealistic pressure on your level just because you’re about to play in a competition. It will only make you angry, stressed out and disappointed and ultimately further removed from the actual music and the reasons you love performing it"
Bryony: "One thing I would add is that listening to your body is crucial when it comes to a competition ... being in pain can pull your focus away from the music in a negative way if it’s not managed carefully.
I generally find that after 3-4 hours playing, my focus and quality of playing starts to dip, so I made sure to pace the performance days accordingly. I also try to stretch regularly - we forget that we should approach the physical demands of performing in the same way that athletes approach sport"
Who has been the ensemble’s most influential mentors and inspirations?
Johannes: "Simon Rowland-Jones was there in the very beginning, encouraging us to take quartet seriously and planting a seed in us that we could actually make it into a career.
The late Peter Cropper of the Lindsays then lit a fire under us by roaring (in the most profound way) about Beethoven for a few months.
Oliver Wille and John Myerscough have been hugely influential in the last few years by teaching us about the inner workings of the music itself and giving us vital tools for improving our rehearsals as well as the ability to independently shape and realize our interpretations"
Away from your instruments, what do the 4 of you enjoy doing together?
Bryony: "Good question! We often split off into smaller groups, for example, Johannes and I will often look for the best place to find a decent coffee. Ricky and Johannes always seem to be discussing Formula 1 when they have the chance and while we were in Banff, Steffan learned a lot about baseball from Ricky!
Everyone in the quartet loves discussing fine instruments and bows to varying degrees, so that is often the topic of conversation!
On long car rides together we tend to talk about everything, including our families, politics, the problems that the world faces, sports and other miscellaneous subjects"
What does the future hold for the Marmens now?
Bryony: "We are really looking forward to visiting new countries and performing in major concert halls around the world.
We are very fortunate to be featured in two winners tours over the next few years, one for The Banff International String Quartet Competition and also one for the Bordeaux International String Quartet Competition.
We look forward to visiting Dallas, where we will share the Peak Fellowship Ensemble-in-Residence Prize at Southern Methodist University Meadows School of the Arts, as well as Stanford University where we will work with the St. Lawrence String Quartet.
It also seems fitting to be able to visit Schloss Esterházy in connection with the Esterházy Foundation Prize after being awarded the R.S. Williams and Sons Haydn Prize at BISQC.
Next year we will be embarking on a Beethoven Cycle in Sweden and we can’t wait to be immersed in such a profound body of work.
Our career goals remain the same: to become the very best quartet we can possibly be, exploring the vast repertoire that the string quartet combination has to offer and to share our love of quartet playing with diverse audiences around the world."