Before you go cruising in China, read this

June 8, 2018 by norman lebrecht


Our diarist Anthea Kreston is finding pitfalls in her lotus life:

Mid-way through a tour of Asia, sitting in the luxury of my room in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Central Hong Kong, I find myself in a tangle of wonder, excitement, and loneliness. You see, my life has turned into one of those books you read about famous string quartets – I am picked up in a Limo at the airport, addressed by name as I enter the lobby of the impossibly decadent hotel (no need to check in – it has already been done), get to my room -which has bouquets of flowers (with dew on the petals), baskets of exotic fruits, and hand-written notes from Warner Asia, am driven to the incredible, huge and acoustically perfect concert halls, where my personal dressing room is outfitted with a wonderful spread (even the hotel concierge knows that I am a vegetarian, as they hand me my custom snack for the next leg of the tour). I see posters of our group, one story tall, on the sides of buildings. Also, like in the books, we stay on different floors, eat at separate tables, and see each other only on stage, where each of us is in top form, and performs at our highest level. The CD signing area has audience members lined up all the way through the lobby – it takes the better part of an hour to sign the CDs and programs, and take photos before we are escorted to the after-dinners. A short sleep is followed by a repeat of the already stated, with an escort to the airport, where we are equally spread across Business Class, and the warmed nuts and champagne are delivered.

I am very aware that any number of people could be doing my my exact job – that I am in no way special or extra-talented or unique. I just happen to be the person doing this job at this moment. That is where the disconnect happens.

I am a funny mix of extremely social, totally independent, and able to entertain myself in a million different ways, endlessly. And so, this kind of thing can actually suit me pretty well. I do look forward to those two windows of time that I can try to catch my family on FaceTime (as they are getting ready for school, or immediately after school). Those are important. But also, I get out and about – last night in Hong Kong was our first day without a concert (we had two in Taipei, two in Tongyeong and one in Seoul so far). I booked a place on a Junk Boat tour of the Hong Kong harbor to see the Symphony of Lights (the biggest light show on the planet, with music and buildings on both sides of the water in a wondrous, synchronized show). These fully-battened seagoing ships were first in use in the 2nd century, and as we landed in Hong Kong, delayed because of a Typhoon, I wondered to myself if this was a good night to be going on a cruise. But, they were sailing, and so was I. The show was incredible, with the foggy night, pierced by laser lights which beamed from one shore to the other. As a woman alone, I attracted more than several middle-aged business men, but luckily I am adept at firmly but funnily steering clear of the offers of drinks.

It was already late as I got off the boat – two burly sailors firmly grabbing each passenger, waiting until the boat swung back close enough to the dock to toss each passenger in turn to the the two sailors on shore. I thought for one moment before deciding to extend my adventure to the famous Temple Street Night Market – and as I wandered my way through the maze of steaming food stalls and people hawking every manner of wares, my shirt became wet with the dense humidity of a sleepless city at midnight.

And so, I have tried each day to take an adventure, to rest and prepare for the evening’s concert, to eat well and sleep enough. And to navigate through this surreal life – one which I feel I have already read about in a book.

Comments (26)

  1. Tamino says:

    You eat at separate tables? That‘s awkward.

    1. John Borstlap says:

      No, string quartet members have to avoid each other as much as possible during their off-time.

    2. Alex Davies says:

      I too was struck by this, and thought it sounded odd. I had always assumed that one of the bonuses of being a chamber musician, rather than being a touring soloist or conductor, was that one was always on the road as part of a group of colleagues, and eventually friends. I know that Heifetz and Piatigorsky were supposedly each other’s closest friends (only real friends some have said), and the famous quintet of Du Pré, Perlman, Barenboim, Mehta, and Zukerman clearly knew each other off-stage (to the extent that two of them were married to each other, not that that ended well). I’m sure I’ve read that the Endellion Quartet travel together, stay together, and eat together. Orchestra and choir tours are famously social occasions. Even a conductor friend of mine recounts nights out with orchestral musicians and chorus singers who are happy to share local knowledge with the maestro. So what’s the deal with string quartets? Is it like psychotherapy where you’re scarcely allowed to greet your therapist if you see him in the street in case it breaks down your professional boundaries? It sounds peculiar to me, four people travelling the world together but only seeing each other on stage. Is the fear that if they ever saw each other outside of a purely musical context personal associations would build up that would inhibit the ability to perform music together in a detached and objective fashion?

    3. Bruce says:

      It’s possible that the time you spend together in rehearsal & onstage is so intense that everybody just wants a break in between.

      1. Anthea Kreston says:

        Yes this must be it….I have never experienced it before, so it is a new thing for me to get used to.

        1. Bruce says:

          It doesn’t mean you’re not friends, it’s [usually] just a case of “whoo… OK, I need to go do something else for awhile.”

  2. John Borstlap says:

    I’m so happy to read all of this! instead of practicing the music! There is far not enough attention in classical music for all the things which really makes it worthwhile, and we poor listeners are just saddled with the boring bit in the concert hall.


    1. Anthea Kreston says:

      Sally! I missed you!
      Intermission in Tokyo now – first half Beethoven op 18/3, Janacek Kreutzer. What a total blast – covered in sweat now and trying to regain energy for Schumann in 15 minutes…..

      1. HRBmus says:

        Oh gawd – not again What’s with this eternal ‘kraut sandwich’ quartet programming?! Every string quartet does this 99% of the time – two huge black-bread hunks of rainy-Sunday-afternoon German Romantic stuff, suffocating one thin slice of something different cowering in between. Every damn program is 75% trapped Kaiser Wilhem’s sound-world. PLEASE stop that. STOP! How about at least one year German-free?

        1. John Borstlap says:

          This comment is something like bitterly complaining in an Italian restaurant that all they have is Italian food.

          The German classical string quartet repertoire belongs to the greatest achievements of the human mind and offers fresh musical experience with every repeated performance. (Yes, it’s true.) But people getting tired of high-art luxury can get their shot elsewhere, in the way spoiled city dwellers wholeheartedly enjoy camping in the wilderness when escaping from civilization:

          1. HRBmus says:

            If you look at the programming of string quartets for the last 30 years in major metro areas, you will see that there is clearly an A&R formula which results in an average of 75% of listening time spent in only one of at least 8 significant Western concert music esthetics while also locking out a century’s worth of music written since then. This has nothing to do with performing commercial, pop or crossover material – this has to do with the majority of available classical music being ignored. It needs to be remedied.

            (A previous comment, now thankfully dissappeared, called me a ‘small minded racist’ for the post. Referring to the German esthetic in music from Haydn to Brahms has absolutely nothing to do with ‘race. The notion that German is a race at all was largely propagated by the ultimate racist, so let’s just get past that silly comment shall we? There’s enough of that nonsense on SD as it is.)

          2. Tamino says:

            What is ‘German esthetic’? No such thing exists. It’s a huge variety of regional and individual influences. It is not racist but nationalistic to emphasize such unimportant aspects. Who cares if Beethoven or Schumann are German composers? Why do you have a problem with it? Aren’t they humanity’s composers, for anyone to listen who wants to? I find your mindset disturbing.

            Also, do some research about string instrument playing over the last centuries. There are databases who give geographical data, where luthiers were practicing, selling and repairing instruments. It’s – in today’s borders – overwhelmingly an affair within the limits of Northern Italy, Germany, Austria, Bohemia (Czech). That was the heartland of classical string instrument playing up until the late 19th century. Naturally most composers of the genre are from that area.

        2. Anthea kreston says:

          You can tell that I am bored and spending lots of time waiting for flights because I am responding to so many comments. But anyway – I guess one of the coolest things about this job (as an American joining a premier German Quartet) is that we do get to play the standard, amazing classics. In the States, we studied these, competed with these, but were rarely allowed to perform standards in concerts. There are so many “theme” programs, and other pressures to play non-standard rep. What an absolute pleasure to see next year’s repertoire – Death and the Maiden, Bartok, Haydn, Brahms. And I will be challenged and have to play and feel and think at the absolute top of my game. We are compared to all others, from the past and present, and I can’t wait to put my own stamp down. And – HRBMUS – I love your passion and opinionated self – keep it up – we are all in it together, although we take a little step to the right or left as we continue forward together.

          1. HRBmus says:

            It’s a rare thing to be able to communicate directly with a member of a world-class quartet about repertoire: certainly the last thing one ever wants to do after a concert is say anything other than ‘thank you.” But I am quite serious about that formula for quartet concerts that is is play here on the East coast of the US, and not just quartets, but trios and other ensembles. I hope those who choose the programs will come to realize that closed (and thus ever more narrow) range of the Haydn-Brahms axis is neither the center of the musical universe or human experience, and that it is entirely possible to give seasons of post 1880 works without them being either ‘theme’ programs or sequestered contemporary ‘leper colony’ concerts.

            France, Italy, the UK, Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltics, Eastern Europe, the US, Latin America, Oceania, etc etc – these are not ‘themes.’ The people who lived in them and wrote music in the past 150 years had something equally valid to impart. To treat the rest of the concert music universe outside the Hadyn-Brahms Axis as “Das Land Ohne Musik” becomes a dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy.

            So much for a dose of passion – at least hope it alleviates the travel woes for you. I look forward to hearing you in a program featuring works by–oh let’s just pick something out of the air and say Casella and Pavel Haas. Then it will be all the more gratifying afterward to be able to I say “Thank You.”

          2. Anthea kreston says:

            Hi again! Landed in London, now waiting for the last leg to Berlin. I totally hear you, HRBMUS! So – I guess, it just depends on which ensemble I am a part of at any given moment. Each has its own niche. The Quartet I am a member of is bread and butter classics. Nothing I can do about that but enjoy every minute. The night before I left for Asia, I was playing in a totally adventurous concert series in Hannover (KünsteSpielFest – look it up – it is way out of the box) where I played (facing each other with the audience circled around us) with my string Trio, Schoenberg followed by the rarely played one-hour long Rihm String Trio. I spent years playing with YoYo Ma and the Silk Road Project, and I never suggested that we play Brahms. As a musician, we can wear many hats (I played electric violin in an all-girl rock band for a couple of years), and every time I put a different one on, I just pull it down tight and forge ahead, with everything that I’ve got. Thanks for reading and I love these interactions! Makes it so much more real.

  3. V.Lind says:

    I’m more interested in what she scored at Temple Street Night Market, an old haunt of mine.

    1. Anthea kreston says:

      So many great things! Besides a super bowl of noodles, an oil painting, 3-dimensional wooden pop-up building, traditional clothes for my girls, tea set for husband, chopstick sets…..

      1. V.Lind says:

        Not bad! Next time you’re in HK,you should try The Lanes.

  4. Edoardo says:

    I would like to ask Anthea how she manages to squeeze 50 hours in the space of 24. I am astonished that she can do all she does and also finding the time also to write her weekly column which is usually quite insightful. Some people are just amazing 🙂

    1. Anthea Kreston says:

      In Osaka now. Just scored some bacon writing paper. Feeling pretty awesome about that.

    2. John Borstlap says:

      But it is not too difficult if you have tried it repeatedly. You just have to push and squeeze very hard, like a suitcase on the day you leave your holiday hotel and find that you have much more stuff when going-back than you had thought.

  5. Marg says:

    Im breathless. What a boring life I lead. Need to get out more ….

    1. Anthea kreston says:

      Marg –
      To be honest, I am wiped out. I just don’t want to miss anything, though. Right now I am waiting for my flight Tokyo-London, and I am in one of those first class lounges for the first time, because we are business Class. It is crazy in here – full gorgeous buffet and open bar. I am going to explore…..

    2. Anthea kreston says:

      There is processed cheese for the foreigners and a massage area – this is pure craziness

  6. Tamino says:

    Why would anyone, or even a member, classify the Artemis quartet as a ‚German quartet‘. It was founded in Germany and its members are based there, but half of its members are not Germans, their mentors were very much international, and so is their repertoire and audience.
    Music rarely can be confined to national borders. It is by definition without them.
    Why is it so important for so many people to press big things into small boxes? Fear of the infinite (opportunities)? Identity complexes?

    1. Fritz Bruhns says:

      Well – I still would consider Artemis as a “German” quartet, as TAMINO says, as they are based in Berlin, as as their roots go back there. But neither do I “locate” them here for chauvinism, being German myself, nor in any kind of competition with French, British, Danish, Czech, Isralel, Korean … (you name it) .. quartets, it’s a label before all which, by itself, doesn’t say anything on their music. What I’m proud of, though, really is what TAMINO correctly says: half of their current member has other than German origins – this is what I want my country to do and to be: open to join forces and enthusiasm across any kind of boundaries, including rather than excluding others … this spirit is more urgently needed in these times than ever before during the last say 50+ years. When such gropus, but even more so larger orchestras with members from virtually everywhere enter the stage, this is has meanwhile become a most political statement, and it’s a shame but dead necessary to get people concscious this is not (no longer) self-evident but an achievement we need to take care of … Just to note, Anthea, “bread and butter” served by Artemis is really so much different from the same diet by others – and this has nothing to do at all whether it comes from a German ensemble of from wheresoever.

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