Jazz and Classical at Maverick with Le Quatuor Ebène

Le Quatuor Ebène (The Ebène Quartet) is a dynamic group of young musicians utterly devoted to their artistry. In my book, the Quatour Ebène is one of the top three string quartets in the world. While some quartets are incredibly adept at one particular era or style — for example, the Baroque period (c. 1700-1850), the Classical period (c. 1750-1830) or the Romantic era (mid-1800s to early 1900s) — the Quatour Ebène’s true brilliance lies in its ability to take on any style within the classical genre and play it equally fantastically.

And the critics have taken note.

The quartet has received numerous glowing reviews in prestigious publications such as the New York Times and Gramophone, winning plenty of awards along the way. Not content within one genre, however, the members of the quartet are also avid and proficient jazz musicians. This is evidenced by the quartet’s jazz and pop album “Fiction,” which includes a wide array of covers, including music of The Beatles, Miles Davis, Chick Corea, and the theme song from the film Pulp Fiction. Concert-goers at Maverick Concerts in Woodstock, NY got to hear both sides of the Quatour Ebène last week, when the group gave a jazz concert on Saturday evening followed by a classical concert on Sunday afternoon.

On Saturday, the musicians played tunes from “Fiction,” and their playing was immensely passionate and vibrant. In between incredible solos with an inspired and improvisatory feel, the musicians also utilized their instruments in non-traditional ways; Raphaël plucked his cello like an upright bass, Gabriel and Matthieu tapped their instruments creating percussive sounds, and at times Pierre even tapped his metal music stand with his bow, evoking the sound of a cymbal. The quartet’s playing was truly thrilling, and after each piece the musicians had barely played the last note when the audience broke into applause. Highlights included “Mirsirlou” from Pulp Fiction, Miles Davis’ “Nothing Personal,” Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” a fiery Piazzolla tango, and a surprise encore of the quartet singing “Someday My Prince Will Come” in French. The musicians’ vocals are just as good as their playing, and the gorgeous four-part harmonies were accompanied by a fantastic musical arrangement of the grand, sweeping waltz.

On Sunday, the quartet played Mozart’s Divertimento in F Major, K.138, Fauré’s String Quartet in E Minor, Op. 121, and Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11. The Mozart was darling and flirty, at times with a hint of melancholy, and the Quatour Ebène did a marvellous job of bringing the charming music alive with sensitivity and sophistication. As Maverick music director Alexander Platt stated of the musicians, “they find a thousand more surprises in the music than I ever thought possible.” The musicians did a similarly excellent job of playing the Fauré quartet, which was based on sketches from an earlier, unfinished violin concerto by the composer. Before the concert, first violinist Pierre joked to me that he hoped the Quatour Ebène wouldn’t put people to sleep with the music, which he said was “special.” It certainly doesn’t follow conventional structure, for the piece is somewhat shapeless and shifts form throughout, meandering through the pages of music. Everyone was captivated by the quartet’s playing, however, and if the concert hall was extremely quiet it was because the audience was in awe at the beauty and solemnity of the piece, which contains haunting melodies and an overwhelming sadness — until the last movement, anyway, which is quite animated and has multiple textures created by pizzicato (plucked), staccato notes, and legato passages. The Tchaikovsky string quartet the Quatour Ebène played was his first of three, and a spectacular one at that. The third movement in particular is my favorite, which features a repetitive theme, sharp contrasts in dynamics, and forceful, dramatic music.

The musicians of the Quatour Ebène have a great ability to discern precisely what each piece or composer requires in order to play the music to its full potential, and their level of both skill and heart is astounding. The quartet’s albums are undeniably superb, but they do not do justice to the enthusiasm and energy the musicians bring to live performances. If you have the opportunity to see the Quatour Ebène, don’t miss it!

I had a chance to catch up with three of the musicians for the following interview before Sunday’s concert.

The Quatour Ebène is:
Pierre Colombet, violin.
Gabriel Le Magadure, violin.
Mathieu Herzog, viola.
Raphaël Merlin, cello.

How long have you been together?

GLM: It will be thirteen years in September.

Did you meet in college?

GLM: At music school in Paris, yes, at the conservatory. We are not from Paris, but we met in Paris for studies and continued.

The quartet is based in Paris, though?

RM: Yes.

Recently there has been a lot of press about the London Olympics, as I’m sure you know, and I read that many of the athletes’ spouses and significant others are similarly athletes. I know that Pierre’s wife, Akiko Yamamoto, is a pianist – she actually recorded Brahms’ Piano Quintet in F Minor with Quatour Ebene. What about the rest of you guys? Are your wives or girlfriends musicians?

GLM: Mine is a pianist, yes. A solo player.

Do you find it’s helpful to have someone else who knows the industry, and how does that work with scheduling?

GLM: The schedule is very difficult that we share together. It’s quite impossible. I mean, we have a maximum of two weeks holidays together a year, but most of the time when I am on holiday she is not and I follow her playing concerts, and then she does the same for me. We just try to be together.

Raphael, last night you mentioned that three of you are now fathers. How has that affected your scheduling, as far as touring goes?

MH: For the moment, it has affected nothing.

RM:  But I think we have a different perspective of the real necessities of being in a quartet together. We make relation with the time we would prefer to spend with children so we try to reduce the time with the quartet, which every quartet growing up knows. This first period you have to get a real vision and sound, and a system in order to allow every situation to be stable. And then, when we become adults with private lives asking more, demanding more time, then we have to make compromises. Probably we’ll reduce a little bit of our touring, but it’s a big question.

Do you think as you’ve gotten older and more mature together as a quartet, it requires less time because you know each other better as musicians?

MH: Yes.

GLM: Sure.

RM: And we have different methods to practice and to spare some time.

MH: Or to not practice… (laughs)

RM: (laughs) Or sometimes we can also just stay home and, you know, do nothing.

How has becoming parents, which is a pretty big life event, affected your playing? Does it inspire you differently?

MH: I don’t think it has affected in any way how we play. When you play it’s not only inspiration, it’s work, practicing… Of course the first day, or the first week, maybe, but after that you’re a father and you don’t think about your child all the time when you’re onstage. So, the emotion can come without emotion. The emotion is in the music, not especially in your heart, or in your stomach, or somewhere. So actually, I think when we are parents, we are parents. That’s another step of life, and we have a job which is playing music in a string quartet, enjoying music and giving pleasure to the people it we can.

You guys have immense sensitivity to one another’s timing and phrasing. You seem to understand each other, and breathe at the same moments. Does that come from practice alone or is that partly because you guys connect so well as friends?

MH: It’s always practicing.

RM: Practicing, yeah, rehearsing.

You play classical, jazz, pop, there’s even a little bit of rock elements to some of your music. Is there a particular style you have an affinity for, or that you enjoy playing the most?

MH: It depends on which of us it is. Raphael prefers jazz, pure jazz if I may. We [gesturing to Gabriel] prefer maybe pop/rock, and Pierre enjoys everything. I love American song music, for example. Maybe  I’m also the one who loves not especially the tango but bossa nova more, this kind of thing. And that’s why you have all these influences–

RM: [interrupts] Inside the arrangements.

MH: — inside the quartet, inside the concerts. It’s like a basket. Everyone puts some music in it, and after that, something will come out of the basket and it’s music from Quatuor Ebène.

Have you ever considered Celtic music?

GLM: I did when I was alone, when I was younger. But I never put this influence into the quartet. Maybe I should, maybe I should. That’s an idea. Maybe next time I will tell them that’s my favorite.

MH: It’s possible, it’s possible.

GLM: Yeah, yeah, why not…

Are there any projects that you guys are currently working on?

RM: Yes, but it’s in a long time.

GLM: We have a Mendelssohn project which will be released by September. But there is another crossover project, yes, we are working on a bit with [Europe] Ecologie, but that’s all we can say.

Great! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me.

RP: No problem!

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