Sophie Rowell

Born in Adelaide, Sophie Rowell studied at the Australian Institute of Music in Sydney with Alice Waten before undertaking an Artist’s Diploma at the Cologne Hochschule for Musik with the Alban Berg Quartet. She has also participated in masterclasses with renowned violinists and chamber musicians, including Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Walter Levin (LaSalle Quartet) and Norbert Brainin (Amadeus Quartet.)

In 2000, Sophie won the Symphony Australia Young Performer's Award, and has since had solo engagements with all the major Australian orchestras, and in France. In 1999 she was awarded Second Prize in the International Mozart Competition in Salzburg and has also won New Zealand's Gisborne Music Competition, the Dorothy Fraser Scholarship, the Richard Goldner Scholarship and the Marten Bequest Travelling Scholarship.

As the first violinist of the Australian String Quartet (formerly Tankstream Quartet 2000-2006) she has given concerts and been broadcast throughout Australia, Europe, North America, Japan and New Zealand. The Quartet were the winners of the 2005 Cremona String Quartet Competition and the 2002 Osaka International Chamber Music Competition.

Sophie has been Guest Concertmaster with the Adelaide, Melbourne, and Tasmanian Symphony Orchestras and in Jena, Germany. She is a member of the Elder Trio with Lucinda Collins (piano) and Janis Laurs (cello) at the Elder Conservatorium of Music, University of Adelaide where she is a member of the string faculty.

Q & A with Sophie Rowell

You are considered one of Australia’s most experienced string quartet leaders. What has prompted you to leave this medium and branch out in other areas at this time?

I was drawn to playing quartets by the sonority and homogeneity of the 4 voices and spent 12 wonderful years ensconced in that world. They say that playing in a string quartet is like a marriage and that, to an extent is true. I got to travel the world and play incredible music with 3 of the dearest friends I will ever have. The string quartet is a peculiar beast, however, that demands the most exacting standards from its participants, only attainable through utter dedication to the medium. It doesn’t leave you much time for anything else. Although I love the quartet and the life I led with it, I felt that I needed to explore different areas in music as a way of growing and expanding as a musician. I’d love to play a Strauss Tone Poem, to play the violin part in a Piazzolla Opera, to direct a Mendelssohn Symphony and, as the next stage in my career develops, I’m looking forward to the opportunities that will make these dreams realities.

How did you come to play the violin?
I have 2 older brothers, both of whom were playing instruments before I was born. When I was 4 one of them was playing the viola and I remember asking Mum to play the violin one day as she was in the kitchen and he was practising in his bedroom. She said I should wait until I started school, so the week after I turned 5 I began violin lessons. Well, she began real violin lessons, I started on a tissue box and 2 rulers. The family did often say that they were the best sounds I made for years!

What is your favourite piece of music to perform?
There are so many pieces I love to perform but if I had to choose one I would say Beethoven’s op131 Quartet. Written in c# minor, which is a heart-wrenching key, the work opens with a slow fugue and journeys, for the next 35 minutes without a break, through the greatest range of emotion. At times painful, others joyful, then moments of reflection and of liberation, the piece culminates in a driving finale that finally reaches the major key. The first violin hits dramatic octaves and it always felt to me, as I played them, that I had climbed the mountain, wrestled with the hazards on the way, broken through the clouds and was standing on the summit with lungs bursting. This is the only piece of music that gives me that sense of achievement. I must add that this sense of achievement has nothing to do with my playing, instead it is the breathtaking craft of Beethoven’s composition that induces this overwhelming feeling.

What is your favourite piece to listen to?
Now that’s a hard question and I can’t answer with one piece. Instead I shall list my mood and a suggestion of my corresponding music choice...well for today anyway.
Normal: Symphonic Works, especially Schubert and Tchaikovsky To accompany having to write emails: Schubert Lieder Frustrated: Kings of Leon very loudly
Reflective: Bach Goldberg Variations (string trio version)
Sad: Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture (it doesn’t usually lift my mood) Uplifted: Piazolla’s Opera ‘Maria of Buenos Aries’
Sunday mornings: Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Sunday afternoons: Jacques Brel
Sunday evenings: Opera on the radio
House cleaning: Jean-Luc Ponty, an amazing French jazz violinist Summer: Cricket
Winter: AFL
Conclusion: Listens to everything and is a sport tragic!

Favourite Australian (and/or international) venue to perform in and why?
I think my favourite venue in the last few years has been the Adelaide Town Hall. Not only does it have a wonderful acoustic that allows the performer to explore the greatest range of dynamic, but it also lets me play for my family. I love having them in the audience!
People often ask what my favourite concert has been, and I can answer that definitively. At the end of the Paolo Borciani String Quartet Competition in Italy in 2005 we played Schnittke’s 3rd Quartet in the Winner’s Concert. After the rigours and anxieties of preparing and playing in the competition I’ll never forget the feeling of walking onto the stage and seeing audience members in every seat and by every seat I mean all 4 tiers of a typically ornate Italian opera house. I remember the vivid crimson of the curtains adorning the boxes on all levels. To play purely for pleasure again was like having the weight of the world lifted from our shoulders. It was the end of a long and hard journey, but that particular evening (and the way we celebrated afterwards) made it all more than worthwhile.

Who or what inspired you to pursue music?
I was never one of those children who knew they were destined to follow a musical path. Instead it just grew on me. There came a time in my life where I realised that I didn’t want to live without it. My mother wisely told me once that music should always remain my hobby. She is certainly one of my biggest inspirations. Musically I have had the good fortune to cross paths with many inspiring teachers and musicians. Alice Waten in Sydney guided me wonderfully for many years. Günther Pichler of the Alban Berg Quartet encouraged and supported me in a very kind way, (something for which he is not usually renowned but I was a lucky one.) Together with these mentors, and through the inspiration of the many musicians I’ve been so fortunate to work with, my musical path has opened in ways I could never have hoped to imagine.

Do you have a preference for certain composers, styles or eras?
My ears are open to all types of music. In particular I love going to the opera because I’ve always wished I could sing. As long as a performance is given without inhibition I find myself drawn to it.
As a player I think I have certain styles in which I feel more comfortable than others. I am most at home in the late Classical/early Romantic eras. I adore playing Schubert but probably have something to offer in Mendelssohn - it just sits very well with me. I love solving puzzles (spare time will often find me with a cryptic crossword or sudoko in my hand) and so I find the element of solving the puzzle that a piece of modern music presents an exciting challenge. Playing Brett Dean’s Violin Concerto last year was one of those challenges. That was a huge mountain to climb, but the view at the top was amazing!

Is there any particular musician whom you admire?
There are just so many musicians I admire and I couldn’t possibly list them all without boring you to tears. But... the question led me to thinking about what it is in a musician that I most admire. While I appreciate someone with a fine technique, or someone who owns the stage I think what touches me the most is the musician who sings or plays from their heart, the musician who offers something of themselves to the audience. I find myself touched by that vulnerability and feel privileged to have seen that performer’s soul.

How do you find the Classical Music world in Australia compared to overseas?
Australia is in a unique position in the Classical Music world because the tradition here is relatively new. We are in the process of creating
our own tradition and that allows great freedom and innovation. It is a fresh approach that is exciting to audiences overseas. I remember Norbert Brainin (1st violin Amadeus Quartet) saying to us as he was preparing us for a concert in Vienna that audiences would not have heard something like us for a long time. (We took it as a compliment!) There is a part of me that wishes I had more understanding of the established schools of playing, but, on the other hand, we have the freedom here to be endlessly creative and to play a small part in the creation of a tradition.

What piece of music are you most looking forward to playing in your upcoming performances with Selby&Friends?
I feel like I know the Shostakovich Piano Trio really well having heard it so many times and tutored it often with younger chamber musicians, but I’ve actually never played it before. I can’t wait to dive into this magnificent work, full of power, passion, intimacy and grief. Although I’m really looking forward to sharing the stage with Kathy and Clancy for the whole program because the works are all wonderful in their own ways, the opportunity to finally play the Shosakovich was simply irresistible.

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