Utopias ASQ 2023Australian String Quartet. Adelaide Town Hall. 22 May 2023


The power of music is indisputable. It can brighten our mood, heighten our awareness, and transport us fleetingly to distant places. It can allow us to discern different possibilities, perhaps even give us a glimpse of the ideal. The musical selections in the ASQ’s current national touring program – Utopias – do all those things, and some.


Styled Utopia, the program comprises three diverse compositions: Arcadiana, by Thomas Adès; String Quartet No.15 in D minor, K.421, by Mozart; and String Quartet No.9 in E-flat major, Op.117, by Shostakovich. Through the medium of the string quartet, each composition shows the composer at work trying to articulate something that is more superior than what has come before, whether it be pure music that is in some sense better constructed, or the depiction of a concept that represents a preferred or more idealised state.


Each of Arcadiana’s seven sections is, we are told, a different study of the nature of paradise. As such, the music is abstract, and the instruments are used in ways that elicit other-worldly sounds. The music making doesn’t beg to be observed visually. Rather, it’s a purely aural experience and the novel sound-world entices you into yourself almost in a meditative state, and the next twenty minutes drifts on by. At the conclusion, there was nothing but hushed silence throughout the Adelaide Town Hall with not a sound coming from the large audience for a full five seconds as they returned to the moment from wherever their minds took them. And then the applause was effusive. In lesser hands, Arcadiana may not have had the same effect. The ASQ played with sublime musicality, it’s as simple as that.

Mozart’s String Quartet No.15 is an example of a composition that is close to perfection – something from musical utopia if you wish. The ASQ approached it with tenderness, as if it were a delicate thing that needed to be managed with abundant care. The musicians were able to find and expose the innate simplicity in the piece, giving it a freshness and clarity that is somewhat uncommon. From an audience perspective, one sensed we were glimpsing Mozart at the peak of his powers.


In his String Quartet No.9, like in many other of his compositions, Shostakovich expresses his anguish at the consequences of war. He himself dedicated the quartet “In remembrance of the victims of fascism and war.” The piece is sober and grave, but it also has a sense of yearning as its varied melodies and rhythms inextricably move us towards something more positive. Arguably, Shostakovich was denied his utopia in his lifetime, but this quartet, which is the one most frequently played, glimpses him idealising it. Again, the musicians of the ASQ approached this moving composition with unnerving artistry.


The true beauty of this program was not to be found only just in the superlative musicianship of the ensemble. The skilful programming was at the heart of its success. Bravo ASQ.


Kym Clayton


When: 22 May

Where: Adelaide Town Hall

Bookings: Closed