“This is for you. And this is for you. Happy Christmas!” There’s quite a to-do in the Helsinki restaurant booth when the Meta4 get together. Christmas is only a few days off, and the holiday spirit is catching, with presents and hugs all round. It could be any cheerful office get-together before the Christmas break. Or maybe not. The presents are not quite the usual ones: Beethoven’s string quartet op. 131 and Mendelssohn’s op. 44. What is more, presies are not confined to Christmas in the case of Meta4, being more of a quarterly event.
“We each buy music in turn,” they say democratically. “Not necessarily off our own bat, because we usually choose the new works together.”
New life in Berlin
Once the holiday break is over, the new music will be well and truly thumbed. This year the Meta4 have decided to give the quartet their full attention. Straight after Christmas they packed their bags and headed for Berlin. There they intend to stay, at least for the time being. The main reason for the move is so that they can at last all live in the same place. Up till now, they have been scattered round Europe: in Switzerland, Germany and Finland. This has made practising difficult.
“We’ve been flying backwards and forwards and camping in each others’ apartments. It’s been a question of trying to fit in rehearsals when we can, and we now want to put them on a regular footing,” says cellist Tomas Djupsjöbacka.
The others laugh when they start looking back. They have plenty of stories about the sorts of places they usually practise in, and above all the timing. Their colleagues at the European Chamber Music Academy (ECMA) are quite familiar with the Meta4 habits.
“They laugh at us a bit,” violinist Minna Pensola admits. “All week we’re like cats on a hot tin roof, furiously practising a new work for the concert at the end of the week.”
But why choose Berlin? There must, after all, have been plenty of other places. “I made them,” jokes violinist Antti Tikkanen. “I’d spent a year in Berlin and liked it a lot.” Presumably the others liked the idea, too, because it was one of the cities suggested. “Added to which, there’s lots going on in Berlin, and it’s easy to get to from all directions,” lists Minna.
Combination of happy coincidences
The Meta4 might laugh at their very irregular, frenzied rehearsing, but it has not been in vain. Quite the opposite.
The four first got together in 2001, but not regularly until 2003. That very same year they recorded two string quartets by Erkki Melartin, and the following year went on to win the international Dmitri Shostakovich Competition in Moscow. In 2005 they recorded the string quartet and sextet by Veli-Matti Puumala (more about Puumala and his quartet on page 24), and this year their fixtures include a recital at Carnegie Hall.
How have they managed it all, especially living so far away from one another? “Well it’s been a combination of happy coincidences,” Minna reckons. “It’s just evolved.”
The Meta4 story began at the Mänttä Music Festival in 2001. The Artistic Director, Niklas Pokki, wanted the festival to adopt its own quartet and raised the subject with Tomas Djupsjöbacka. “He asked me to name some possible players,” Tomas recalls. There were suitable names among his friends at the Sibelius Academy, at which all four were students.
Offer from Hatto Beyerle
The quartet gave its first recital at Mänttä in 2001 but did not really get going until 2003, when Martti Rousi, cello professor at the Sibelius Academy, decided to send the four on a chamber music course. There they met Hatto Beyerle, their present teacher, who realised at once they were something special. He threw out a challenge: if they would play the difficult Ligeti quartet at the concert at the end of the week, he promised to coach them every day of the course.
The deal was sealed and paid off. Beyerle’s style of teaching suits the Meta4 down to the ground. “For the first time we realised just what quartet playing can be,” sighs Eriikka Nylund, viola. They managed the Ligeti so well that Beyerle offered to continue teaching them. In autumn 2003 they therefore moved to Switzerland, where Minna Pensola and Tomas Djupsjöbacka were already studying, and began as pupils of Professor Bayerle at the Basel Music Academy.
“We jumped at the offer – literally: we spent the first month sleeping on Beyerle’s floor,” Eriikka recalls. Beyerle gave them more than the use of his spare futons. Now, for the first time, they were able to practise properly together. They also got down to the staple quartet repertoire: Haydn, on which Beyerle is an expert. The whole year in Basel was, they say, extremely important for the quartet, and they look upon it as the place and time where Meta4 really got going.
ECMA provides opportunities
After Basel, the Meta4 went on to the ECMA operating in collaboration with the conservatories in Hanover, Zurich, Vienna and Fiesole and the chamber music festivals in Kuhmo (Finland) and Prades (France). “Each of these in turn arranges a one-week session. At first there were four ensembles, now there are six. The idea for the Academy was Hatto Beyerle’s. He’s our teacher, but there are others, too,” says Tomas.
The ECMA has become a major factor in the Meta4’s career, offering contacts with others in Europe, concert opportunities and assistance with marketing. This has been of vital significance, for in this respect Finland is still only on the starting line. “Though music in Finland is thriving, there’s not a single quartet that can make a living out of it. Through the EMCA we’ve met people whose voices carry weight in this field,” the players report.
Another bonus has been that the ECMA has introduced them to the chamber music culture of Central Europe and all in all the rich long quartet tradition that Finland lacks.
Partnership with jazz
Victory in the international Shostakovich Competition in Moscow in 2004 put the Meta4 in the headlines. The Moscow trip is a story in itself, but despite all the mishaps, the Meta4 won. They came home laden with honour and roubles, which then boomeranged back to Moscow to be exchanged.
The best thing about the competition was, in the players’ opinion, the discovery that playing Shostakovich just seemed to come naturally. This was noted by the jury, too: the Meta4 also won the special prize for the best performance of Shostakovich. Now they are constantly being asked to play Shostakovich. They have come to be associated with Shostakovich, as they have with Haydn, a composer for whom they have held a special affection since their time in Basel.
Even so, Meta4 do not want to specialise in any particular composer or era, their intention being to play both earlier and later music, and to reserve a slot in the repertoire for Finnish composers. Among the works to be performed this spring are the fifth string quartet by Jouni Kaipainen (for more on Kaipainen and his quartets see page 14), and the new quartet composed by Carita Holmström for Meta4.
A very unusual concert is scheduled for early February 2006, when the quartet will be taking the stage during the Sibelius Academy Winter Festival with another gang of four – not a string quartet but the Ilmiliekki Quartet confined exclusively to jazz. The great motivating factor here is, for Meta4, the chance to improvise.
“It adds a new aspect to the whole question of musicianship. It’s great to be able to get away from the printed page and not have to play what someone decided two centuries ago,” says Minna, who has also studied jazz. “The biggest challenge at first is forgetting the right/wrong attitude. You just have to keep your ears open and be ready to give, just as in chamber music.”
Need for a breather
Meta4’s ambitions for the quartet are very clear. While each player must contribute individually to the interpretation, sound and freedom from inhibition, the combined interpretation and sound are very important. The interaction must be exceptionally good in a string quartet, and it is therefore absolutely vital to remain good friends. “The relationship has to be worked at like any other,” they claim.
The fact that Antti Tikkanen and Minna Pensola have begun to be an item has undoubtedly added spice to the four-way interaction. “It has also affected our sound. Antti’s vibrato has become warmer,” says Eriikka.
Human relations will really be put to the test in Berlin. The players will not have any teacher to guide them, or institution to fall back on. The quartet will be all on its own.
But Meta4 do not intend to stay in and around Berlin. They will also be honing their contacts with Finland at least. They will be home for visits whenever the opportunity arises, especially in summer. Not necessarily all together. For the four insist that they do not want to concentrate exclusively on the quartet. “We intend to take a breather now and then as well. Our own projects are important both to each of us individually and as a group, if we are to avoid getting stale.”
Right now, however, Meta4 is taking up the lion’s share of their time. They know that although the quartet has forged ahead in only a few years, there is still a lot of work to be done.
So their fans cannot expect, say, any major recording projects right away in Berlin? “We’ve got to learn first,” is the reply. And that’s what they’re planning to do in Berlin – or most of the time at least.
- Born 1980. Began violin lessons at the Jokilaakso Music Institute in Oulainen.
- Equally interested in folk music until senior school. Has arranged a chamber music series at home in Oulainen in the past few years.
- Sibelius Academy 1997, teacher Lajos Garam and later Mi-Kyung Lee. Also studies with Pavel Vernikov at the Lyon Conservatoire.
- Third prize in the Kuopio Violin Competition 2000. Appearances with several Finnish orchestras.
- Chief hobby: cooking “I do a great lentil soup and burger. I like watching the Simpsons on TV, and I go jogging and read a lot.”
- Born 1979. Began violin lessons at the Helsinki Conservatory. Studied jazz at the Ebeli Jazz School in Espoo.
- Sibelius Academy 1995, teacher Kaija Saarikettu. Diploma 2005.
- Studied at the Zurich Music Academy 2001-04 with Ana Chumachenko and Josef Rissin.
- Second prize in the Kuopio Violin Competition 2005.
- Hobbies: jogging, reading and “all sorts of music-making and listening”.
- Born 1979. Violin lessons at home in Kotka.
- Sibelius Academy 1995. Switch to viola and Teemu Kupiainen as her teacher. Diploma 2004. Also studies with Hatto Beyerle at the Hanover Music Academy and Thomas Riebl and Veronika Hagen at the Salzburg Mozarteum.
- First prize in the Nordic Viola Competition in Helsinki 2001.
- Hobbies: reading good books and watching films. “And I try to keep myself in trim.”
- Born 1978. Began violin lessons at the age of three at the West Helsinki Music Institute. “But when I insisted on holding the violin between my knees, they let me change to cello.”
- Sibelius Academy 1996, teacher Martti Rousi and later Marko Ylönen. Diploma 2003. Solo diploma from the Lausanne Conservatoire, following studies with Patrick Demenga 2001-03.
- Second prize in the Turku Cello Competition 1998.
- Teacher of chamber music at the Swedish Polytechnic in Pietarsaari. Member of the European Chamber Orchestra.
- Hobbies: sleeping, cooking and wine, especially good dessert wines. “I’m getting to know about wines and nowadays bring a bottle back from every trip.”
Translation: Susan Sinisalo
Featured photo: Meta4 in its 2018 form by Tero Ahonen