Learning to live with the Beast in our quartet

In the latest instalment of her newbie diary as a member of the Berlin-based Artemis Quartet, US violinist Anthea Kreston gets to grips with the beast in the machine, and a few ghosts.

The Beast

There is a fifth member of the Artemis Quartet – Ecki’s performance podium. I have named it “The Beast”. When the quartet decided to play standing up seven years ago, they relied on the concert halls to provide podiums – which of course varied in width, height, and sometimes did not exist at all. Because of the delicate nature of the set-up of a quartet (there are even halls where the stage crew has laser pointers to pinpoint the exact placement of chairs and stand heights), it became clear that there needed to be a permanent solution to the stage configuration.

Friedemann took it upon himself to design and construct “The Beast”.  The first attempt was a one-piece model which was too heavy to transport. It lives at the University where we rehearse. The second, lighter one was too flimsy and bent when Ecki sat on it. The third was a two-piece model, which can be dismantled for travel. This is a bit too small and lives at the Daniel Barenboim School which is a second rehearsal space for us. The fourth one is the perfect mix of all of these. They have been travelling with this one for three years. It is strong, in two large segments, has a chair guard so that the chair will not slip off the edge, and is surrounded by a ring of Velcro on which a perfectly cut black curtain hangs. On the underside are eight sturdy round legs, about 8 inches tall, which can be screwed on and off. The two sets of interior legs are bound together with tight circles of Velcro to keep the two halves together. In addition, to protect the thread, a covered bolt is secured to the top of the screw for travel.

So – a years-long labor of love is complete!  “The Beast” is a sight to behold. The only remaining problem is how to transport this irregularly-shaped, very heavy object with many little parts. There have been all kinds of options – two different heavy leather cases (with an embossed Artemis logo on the front) have been hand-designed and built by suitcase makers. The problem here is three-fold. One – the leather (although it protects perfectly) is heavy, the zipper breaks, and there is just a little dinky handle. So – a quartet member (usually Gregor) precariously balances this thing on top of a large suitcase, jams it under his armpit, and does a hobble-walk (you should see this on the cobblestone-sidewalks) with many readjustments. When a staircase is reached, a collective sigh is heard, and someone (chivalry is alive!) of the male persuasion lugs it up the stairs. On airplanes, it has to have a special “oversized” ticket and has to be brought down to a different baggage area to be scanned and weighed.

anthea and the beast

Anthea and the Beast

I have, for some reason, a love of tools and building and figuring things out. You know the person who is always at the trunk of a car at the beginning of a trip, analyzing the baggage and odd-shaped things and making a perfect, totally complicated plan?  That’s me. Also the person who comes to your house, and while waiting for coffee to be ready, has turned your table upside down and is fixing the wobble. Once, in high-school (I tended to be a prankster) I realized that my friend’s house was actually a rectangle – with both doors at the same level – and I snuck over late at night and tied her house closed with a huge skein of rope.

So – I have been mulling over “The Beast”.  I also like to be busy. I have normally always taken the lion’s share of work for any group I have been in – travel, press, logistics, music preparation etc., but because I can’t speak German yet, my ability to function in any of these ways is seriously diminished. So – enter “The Beast”.  I have been told by the quartet that in some very specific ways, I am similar to Friedemann – and I think that design and obsession must be one. I felt it was my duty to take this podium during our 5 day rest and come up with a new plan. It normally lives at Gregor’s, but I gave him no choice and said I was going to take it. I tried to get to the bus after returning the rental van last week, but only made it half a block using the “Gregor Balance Method” before giving up and hailing a cab!

So – here is the new plan. First – a large army-style duffel bag, wings tucked in and hand-sewn with Velcro.  Inside, an Ikea furniture pad surrounding an over-sized pillow case, which surrounds the podium, inside of which is nestled a bag with the legs and the Velcro circles and skirt. If you have followed me this far, you deserve a prize!

Outside of the bag is a cross of luggage belts, a shoulder strap, and it is carried either by the strap or the heavy-duty luggage cart with oversized wheels which collapses and can fit perfectly into the (now square) duffel bag. It made it to Vienna so far.

That is what I obsessed over this week -between visits to museums with our first visitors from the States (Jason’s brother and nephew), a violin repair/adjustment, some serious napping, moving, and re-working of my music for the next Artemis tour, of which I am now in the middle. As I write this I am relaxing in my gorgeous hotel room, having played one concert last night in Vienna at the Wiener Konzerthaus, and getting ready for a radio interview followed by our dress for tonight’s concert. Then home for 20 hours before heading to London. The audience was so great last night – the opening applause lasted minutes as we could feel the hope and happiness that once again, the Artemis is complete. And looking over at “The Beast”, we know that a bit of Friedemann is with us also.

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  • Or maybe they should just sit down again. It’s a good quartet, but standing while playing and having the cellist sit on that silly podium doesn’t make them any better. Nor does aligning their stand heights with laser pointers.

  • Another gorgeous and gushing girlande from Anthea. The only details still missing are meal preparations and ablutions. Perhaps we will be regaled with those next.

  • As an audience member, getting to know more about the inner workings of one of the finest living quartets has been fascinating. I remember when this quartet used to sit down, and have enjoyed seeing them stand in recent years – free and able to express themselves with their whole body. Kudos to The Beast.

  • Thank you, Andrea, for sharing your experiences on the road, and combining family and a demanding performing career. Your stories recounting the details of solving interesting challenges from how to deeply learn a piece of music to efficiently moving an essential and cumbersome piece of furniture, are life lessons ! Your energy, positivity, and candor are an inspiration. You have encouraged all by example to roll up our sleeves and think creatively about facing any of the challenges we all face in life. Please keep it up !

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