Next month violinist Anthony Marwood will be performing with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields… and an electric guitarist. The work which has brought together this unusual instrumentation and is receiving its UK premiere, is Steven Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes for violin, electric guitar and strings. He talked to us about the work – and the challenge of switching from Mackey to Beethoven.
You and Steven Mackey came up with the idea for Four Iconoclastic Episodes together – how did that come about?
Steve and I worked at a festival in the States called Yellow Barn several years ago, and we played a piece of his called Physical Property for electric guitar and string quartet. I was amazed by the skill and finesse with which he combined the electric guitar and the string quartet, with incredible daring and without compromising the intrinsic nature of the electric nature of the guitar. It occurred to me at the time that it might be a wonderful addition to the repertoire to have a piece for violin and strings so I asked him if he’d write it.
It’s an unusual combination of instruments – are there any difficulties as a result of that?
You do have to balance it quite carefully. But Steve has such a vast experience in this area that he is very careful about that. And in fact, in a couple of sound checks we did people said that the guitar was too quiet. In all kinds of music where there’s electric guitar, strings haven’t been far away. That has been the case for as long as we have been listening to electric guitar. It’s just that in the classical field it seems to be a little bit more unusual.
The concert also includes two string quartets arranged for string orchestra – one by Shostakovich, one by Beethoven. Why did you decide to programme those next to Mackey’s Four Iconoclastic Episodes?
We took the idea of icons – and two of the icons of the string quartet are Beethoven and Shostakovich. I’ve played Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2, both in the quartet version and in enlarged forces (as in this case), and it works shatteringly well with big forces. It’s an extraordinary, unflinching masterpiece – it’s a wartime piece but not overtly so: the struggle is internal and it ends in a very defiant way. We haven’t done much arranging – in the Beethoven, especially, we’re sticking very faithfully to the original – you really wouldn’t want to change Beethoven.
As a performer, is it difficult to adjust from playing the Mackey to performing the Beethoven?
It feels like you are an actor in two very different plays, and you have to do a very quick costume change between them. But it’s not that much different from playing a recital where you have to encompass all kinds of different styles. And I think it also depends on the colleagues that you have on stage: I know the Academy musicians very well, and they’re so experienced in this repertoire that you have a head start.
Anthony Marwood performs Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11, Op. 95, Mackey’s ‘Four Iconoclastic Episodes’ and Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 2 with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields on 7 June at 7.30pm at Cadogan Hall, and on 15 June at Peasmarsh Festival (when the Shostakovich is replaced with works by Mozart and Haydn).