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Looking at the Brodsky Quartet’s publicity photos, it’s hard to believe they could be celebrating their 50th anniversary this year. As they bound on stage at Kings Place, London, to perform the complete Shostakovich 15-quartet cycle over two days – standing – the focused, visceral energy of their performances puts groups with a fraction of their longevity to shame. Revelling in the full range of Shostakovich’s meaning and palette, this is a quartet at the top of its game, an ensemble that is supernaturally tight with infallible individual chops. Age really is just a number.

The quartet has been on the front foot since 1972, blazing a unique trail

The original members were not yet teenagers when they first took to the stage in Middlesbrough in 1972. The quartet has been on the front foot ever since, blazing a unique trail, whether working with pop stars such as Paul McCartney and Björk (they famously turned Elvis Costello on to Shostakovich); writing their own quartet arrangements; allowing audiences to choose their programmes (at their Wheel of 4Tunes 40th anniversary celebration); redefining concert wear (teaming up with Issey Miyake in 1985); or their many collaborations with school children, music students, composers, actors and opera singers.

Most recently, they’ve released the Schubert Quintet with rising star cellist Laura van der Heijden, and as The Musician meets viola-and-cello husband and wife Paul Cassidy and Jacqueline Thomas, they are about to rehearse with Sir Willard White for their homage to Frank Sinatra’s work with the Hollywood String Quartet. Some quartets specialise in new music, some in pop or salon music, some do educational work and others focus on core repertoire. The Brodskys do it all. Oh, and both Cassidy and Thomas have recently written memoirs.

There’s never been a particular strategy, though, according to Cassidy: “We never recognised the ‘classical music business’. The world that demands you take certain routes and do things in a certain way to fit into that business. We had no idea about that at all. The group was going forward on its own kind of path.”

They haven’t lost any of their original enthusiasm

This creative restlessness is reflected in their musical approach, too. “We refuse to stick to one interpretation of something,” says Thomas. “Even now, we’re still discussing every nuance of Shostakovich, which we’ve known since we were children. It’s just endlessly fascinating. You never tire of questioning and discussing minute details.”

The Brodsky Quartet’s newest recruit, first violinist Krysia Osostowicz, who joined in 2021, explains: “We are young at heart. That’s the quality I appreciate about the Brodskys. They haven’t lost any of their original enthusiasm. I find it phenomenal. It’s nice to be with people at this age who aren’t jaded or tired and fed up, but who approach each rehearsal and concert with new excitement.”

Alongside their 50th anniversary is, perhaps, an even more remarkable one. The three lower voices have been together for 40 years – rivalling the Amadeus Quartet for stability – with only five different first violinists across the half-century. This is the bedrock of their sound and their unshakeable musical unity, a beautifully oiled machine that allows Ostostowicz alternately to rise above or blend.

But with that security, they embrace change. Thomas remembers when Cassidy joined: “We started to learn more about breathing and giving space to each other, being more generous with the sound and attacking slightly less. He fitted in with our way of playing as well, as we assimilated his. That’s happened each time we’ve had a change. We’ve never just said, ‘Okay, this is the way we play’.”

Ostostowicz can vouch for this. She remembers her first rehearsal with the group: “The first thing that happened was Ian produced a great big rubber and put it on his stand. It was a sign that they weren’t expecting to do the same things as usual. That is what I have found between one week and the next. Between one performance and the next we’ll try something new. Even though they’ve been together for so many years, it always feels fresh.”

The Brodsky Quartet standing around music stands rehearsing.
Education has always been at the heart of the Brodsky mission. Image credit: Jonathan Stewart. © Musicians’ Union.

Music education has always been at the heart of the Brodsky mission

Education has always been at the heart of the Brodsky mission, unsurprisingly perhaps, as they themselves benefitted from a unique environment in Middlesbrough in the 70s. The four founding members (Belton and Thomas, plus her brother Michael Thomas as first violin and violist Alexander Robertson) met as children in the youth orchestra there. “We were lucky to have grown up in this amazing area where there were free instruments, free lessons and a vibrant community of teachers and students,” recalls Thomas. “We were in this nurturing place where you could join an orchestra at the age of ten and move up through the different orchestras until you left school at eighteen.”

It’s a Utopian vision that they wish for today’s children. Thomas can’t fathom the government’s lack of support for music education. She says: “Music is everywhere. It’s in cafes, hotels, restaurants. There is not a single film or television programme that doesn’t have music. And yet the government doesn’t seem to see the need to support the learning of it. They’re saying that music is vocational and that musicians will do it anyway. Can you imagine saying that doctors and nurses will learn themselves and we’ll eventually have enough to fill hospitals? No, they provide scientific education and means to get into that field of study. Surely, it’s just as important to support music education?”

Their commitment to education has also been hands-on. They give masterclasses around the world, as well as their Side-by-Side concept, whereby they play alongside students within the group. In this way, they recently performed Shostakovich and Beethoven cycles with students at Dartington and the Royal Conservatoire in Glasgow – they have previously done it in Australia and Mexico, and plan to develop it in other schools and conservatoires. Thomas explains: “It works brilliantly, because you’re not just teaching, you’re rehearsing with the students and they can chip in as well, so you get to the point where you’re sharing ideas rather than giving orders.”

They have often worked in schools, too. Their Moodswings album was the result of an ambitious three-year educational project across six UK schools, bringing together music, English and art classes to produce an entire programme of music – and even the stage design and costume – for voice and quartet. The project generated 100 songs, of which six were chosen alongside those by the likes of Errollyn Wallen, Sting and Björk.

Adapting to new industry challenges and continuing the legacy

Despite these efforts, Thomas admits that it’s hard to shift the dial on the average age of chamber music audiences: “People come to chamber music later in life, for various reasons. Maybe they have more time on their hands when the kids have left home, or their tastes become more open and they’re willing to listen to more complex music. Our audiences tend to have a slightly older age demographic, but it’s always been that way. There are always new middle-aged people coming through the ranks, but there are plenty of young people who are extremely interested and driven by chamber music.”

The quartet is less optimistic about the effects of Brexit on the business, she says: “We all hate Brexit. That old slogan of ‘they’re taking our jobs’ – Europeans have been taking our jobs in music for years and we love it. In this country we embrace musicians from everywhere. There were Europeans in all the orchestras, on the stages of the chamber halls across the country, and that’s how it should be. It doesn’t mean we lose work. We play in their countries – we still get to perform in our own country.”

What practical difference has it made? “We’ve noticed that some countries are inviting British players less often because it’s more hassle for them having to fill in forms, and even travelling with endangered species on your instrument, like ebony, ivory or rosewoods that aren’t allowed. When we were part of the EU, we had blanket protection for that.”

With the fuel crisis kicking in, they’re now seeing concerts cancelled by venues that have to save energy. Cassidy is also pessimistic about the recording industry: “The recording industry is in crisis basically. In the old days, it helped us when we got a Teldec contract. We’ve made over 70 recordings and that’s been really important because it’s a legacy. You hope that when you’re long gone, music students will say, ‘Have you heard their recording?’. These days, that’s tricky for young groups, and of course, we don’t get paid to record.”

He needn’t worry about the Brodskys’ legacy. It is assured – through their rich catalogue and the many boundaries they’ve pushed. Maybe one day, they’ll even convince the government to value music education. In the meantime, they show no signs of letting up. If anything, things keep getting better. Ostostowicz says: “Now we’re all in our 60s, we don’t particularly mind what anyone thinks of us. We do what we do because we believe in it and love it. We’re doing what we want and that seems to be appreciated, which is lucky, because it means we can get to do it more.” There will undoubtedly be much more to come.

The Brodsky's and the MU: The importance of music education

The Brodsky Quartet performed at a Musicians’ Union event called Music For All at the recent Conservative Party Conference.

Thomas explains: “We were there to promote music education because it’s being wiped off the curriculum altogether. Even practical music with free instruments is off the agenda. It tends to be that families who can afford to put their kids into music do and others don’t get the help they need.”

Around a hundred like-minded delegates came to hear them play and talk, but no MPs, although Cassidy says, “It was very worthwhile. It was important for the MU to be there. They filled the room”. The quartet has a strong connection with the MU, as Thomas explains: “We turn to them if we have problems with royalties or bookings, or disputes. It’s a very strong union, stronger than many others. We’re very proud of it.”

Last August the MU and the Fabian Society released a report offering a different vision for music education - it recommended that Labour in Westminster created a National Music Education Service for England. Chris Walters, MU National Organiser for Education, Health and Wellbeing explains more in the video below.

@wearethemu Universal access to music education. That’s what the Musicians’ Union is talking to Shadow Ministers, MPs, councillors and #LabourParty members about at #LabourPartyConference. Music education is devolved, so for England we want to see a National Music Service bringing the best of policy with everything that policy needs to happen: accountability, funding, teachers pay & conditions and more. For Wales, which has a great National Plan for Music Education including all the things we want to see, it’s about keeping teachers and MU members part of the conversation as it rolls out. Thanks MU Head of Education Chris Walters for the lowdown! Learn more at theMU.org. #Lab22 #MusicEducation #TradeUnion #MusiciansUnion #WeAreTheMU #MusicForAll ♬ original sound - WeAreTheMU
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Ariane Todes

Ariane Todes is a journalist specialising in string music and was editor of The Strad magazine. She plays violin in various amateur orchestras.

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