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Francesca Hiew

Francesca Hiew, violinist

I enjoy being part of a small team and feeling like I can equally lead and follow, as well as support and rely on my colleagues to create something so specific to us that I can’t do without them and they can’t do without me ...

In Short ...

When she was four, Francesca Hiew was more proficient with the violin than most of us will ever be with an instrument. By age nine, she travelled across the United States, performing as a soloist and ensemble member in front of large audiences. Her career accolades are numerous, with multiple chamber music awards to her name. After a stint as a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Francesca Hiew joined the Australian String Quartet, a prestigious ensemble renowned for its intimate and mesmerising performances. On Wednesday April 13, Francesca and her fellow quartet members Dale Barltrop (violin), Christopher Cartlidge (viola) and Michael Dahlenburg (cello) will take the stage at Brisbane Powerhouse to perform masterworks from Beethoven and Britten, as well as the world premiere of a new piece from Australian composer David Paterson. We had a chat with Francesca ahead of the performance about her musical craft and what we can expect from ASQ's three-phase performance.

We’re keen to lead off with your love affair with the violin! You started lessons at an incredibly young age, but can you remember what drew you to picking up the violin in particular?
I was very fortunate to be down the younger end of a large family, so all of my older siblings already attended a music school where they offered basically only violin and piano. At the time we had an even split of violinists and pianists in the family, so I was being pulled in two directions because secretly, I longed to be like all of my siblings! In the end, the violin won me over – I loved it from day one but think what especially enticed me was the added appeal of having a very special violin that was mine and no one else’s.

You’ve performed numerous shows throughout your career as a soloist and as a member of quartets and orchestras. In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges and freedoms that come with playing in each setting?
That’s a good question! There’s a flip side to everything. Solo playing challenges you to inspire and push yourself – you have total control over whatever you do, but you also have only yourself to hold accountable at the end of the day. On the other end of the spectrum, when playing in a symphony orchestra you are surrounded by friends and colleagues, as well as these amazing colours, textures and sounds, but you have to be okay with being a small cog in a big wheel and the creative limitations one may feel in that scenario. I think chamber music, and string quartet in particular, is a happy medium. I enjoy being part of a small team and feeling like I can equally lead and follow, as well as support and rely on my colleagues to create something so specific to us that I can’t do without them and they can’t do without me.

There must be a huge emphasis on fostering a great collaborative relationship between players in the Australian String Quartet. What do you think is the secret to the quartet’s chemistry, or the trick to generating harmony in any chamber music ensemble?
This is both the magic and the mystery of string quartets! The string quartet is famously difficult to ‘get right’ because everyone has equal amounts of ownership and leadership, but also has to be willing to compromise and trust in each other. On top of that, the Australian String Quartet is a touring ensemble, so we spend a lot of time together. For me, in life and music-making, there has to be respect, compassion, understanding and care before anything else and the four of us actively work on this all the time. It’s real human stuff. Not complicated – sometimes difficult, but absolutely essential.

Beyond countless performances and practice sessions, what is one interesting aspect of life in ASQ that most people don’t know about?
A lot of people ask us who chooses our programs and the truth is that the four of us are co-artistic directors, and are therefore responsible for what we play, where and how we tour, when we rehearse and all other things artistic. It was both a really appealing and terrifying part of joining the ASQ as not many musicians worldwide get the opportunity for that level of creative freedom in a dual performing and administrative role.

The four of you will be performing at the Brisbane Powerhouse on Wednesday April 13, playing a three-part concert that features a world premiere of an ASQ-commissioned work by Australian composer David Paterson. Without giving too much away, is there anything you can tell us about what we can expect from this brand-new piece of music?
Yes! David is a wonderful pianist, composer and friend. Michael, Chris and I actually studied alongside David years ago, so I happen to know that he used to be a very good violinist and violist. He can therefore approach string quartet writing with an intimate understanding of how to get the right sounds, colours and textures he is trying to create. He’s written a really fun, energetic and rhythmically driven piece that also features a really sublime slow movement in the middle. The piece was commissioned for a significant birthday of a great friend and supporter of the ASQ and we really think David has captured her wittiness, beauty and spirit!

In addition to the world premiere, ASQ will also be treating audiences to renditions of Benjamin Britten’s Three Divertimenti and Beethoven’s third and final Razumovsky quartet. Can you tell us what you enjoy most about playing these compositions and how they challenge you technically?
Britten’s Three Divertimenti were written in his early twenties and are a really fantastic set of character pieces. You hear the beginnings of the truly great composer Britten was about to become, but here he is still youthful, restless and very green! We try to emphasise a sense of wonder and exuberance when we perform this which happily comes naturally because it is incredibly fun to play, but for a short piece, it can be exhausting to perform! And that’s just the beginning of the concert…

Beethoven’s third Razumovsky quartet is a piece we have performed for about six months now and is starting to feel like it’s ‘in the blood’. It’s hard to put into words what’s so challenging about Beethoven, but here’s an attempt – it’s like something very complex that needs to be approached with simplicity. I hope that makes sense! It’s a magnificent quartet with a beautifully contemplative slow movement and one of Beethoven’s best finales!

Are there any compositions that you’ve yet to tackle in a live setting that are on your all-time wish list?
The late quartets of Beethoven are works that are loved, feared and revered by quartets, and for this reason aren’t pieces you hear live very often. In fact, I’ve only performed one of the five in what has so far been a career heavily focused around string quartet playing. Each of them are not only masterpieces of string quartet writing, but are notoriously difficult and incredibly philosophical. So yes, late Beethoven is on the wish list – but watch this space …

As a former Brisbane local, what do you love most about the city and is there anything on your local to-do list when you visit in April?
What I love most about Brisbane are the people I love and miss. Honestly, time in Brisbane means spending all of my free time with family and friends. This visit is extra special as my best and oldest friend will be visiting from London with her family. Over our lifetime her parents and mine have lived a few streets away in the same neighbourhood, so I will wander up the hill to see as much of her as I can!

Catch Francesca and the Australia String Quartet at Brisbane Powerhouse on Wednesday April 13. Tickets are still available – get yours here.

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