Helen Ireland, viola & Miki Tsunoda, violin

Helen Ireland, viola & Miki Tsunoda, violin

Helen and Miki recorded a chat recently over a coffee break in Motown, Little Collins Street (our local!), ahead of our February/March tour.

H Do you find a different emotional connection between rehearsing in an orchestra to rehearsing in a string quartet? Often we find we ride the highs and lows much more in quartet rehearsals than in orchestra - would you say that’s true?

M Well it’s so much more personal! In an orchestra you have a sea of people and everyone is there in a different space with different purposes and different reasons.

H Also in orchestra, it’s very easy to have an opinion, because you don’t have to share it with anyone else to see if works or not.

M Exactly! You can just stay in your little cocoon.

H Do you prefer having more of a personal voice in quartet ?

M Absolutely. Fortunately for me, in my orchestral position I do get to make certain decisions and put suggestions forward within the orchestra. I can also hear myself and my colleagues on the front desk. It’s very different to being a tutti player. It’s nice to be able to respond to the different voices you hear.

H It sounds like your work in your orchestra is very much like chamber music ?

M I make it that way. I think music is interactive. If it ceases to be interactive, it doesn’t speak or have that conversational feel. Belgians tend to be rather introverted by nature and perhaps this mentality does not resonate with everybody. But I believe it's important.

H Is it mainly a Belgian orchestra?

M We have about half Belgians but altogether, there are 22 nationalities.

H So it does have an overriding feel of being more introverted?

M Definitely, but not to be misunderstood - they are interested in everything around them and they do respond in their own way.

H So do you just tone yourself down or are you happy with standing out?

M Should I be honest?

H Absolutely!

M I still stand out, but I have toned myself down enormously! I’ve gone from an 11 to a 3. I still stand out. I’m famous for being heard everywhere in the building. If I can give you an idea of the building - we have a new concert hall now and there are five stories. It seats 2,200 people with an enormous backstage. So enormous that people get lost.

H It sounds like an amazing facility

M Yes … except for the concrete acoustic which means they can hear me from the fifth floor. When I giggle in the cafeteria, they claim they can hear me on the stage. I put it down to the fact that everyone else is just too quiet. To give you another example, we do lots of children’s concerts and quite often in these concerts, you can hear a pin drop. In Australia, that would not be possible. I remember doing MSO schools' concerts and it was a totally different story. You couldn’t shut them up! It’s been a huge shift and learning curve. Especially for our orchestra where there are so many different nationalities, you think the way you behave and think is understood, but actually it’s not always, and vice versa. So there are many moments of misunderstanding. It’s actually incredibly enriching to learn about other behaviours. To be clear - I actually don’t think being introverted is bad!

H It’s definitely not a negative thing, I find it really interesting that in a place like a symphony orchestra where you would imagine the cultures would be similar, there are such notable differences. Musically, that must be fascinating.

M You have players from so many different backgrounds and it’s nice to exchange ideas and to hear new approaches. We also work frequently with Philippe Herreweghe and the wonderful Collegium Vocale Ghent and I have learnt an enormous amount about the importance of context, using the text in the musical phrasing, understanding the text and its rhythmic nuances. It dictates everything in what we do with our parts.

H It’s a constant learning curve, isn’t it?

M It is! A huge learning process about people and their cultures, musical cultures, etc. There is an open mindedness which is nice.

H It’s interesting how we started this conversation talking about the differences between orchestra and quartet because the more I go on in this business, the less difference I feel moving between the two. I find I am approaching both of them more and more similarly.

M That’s true, because you have to listen no matter what and be completely open at all times.

I have to say that these last few days have been so interesting because I normally play second violin and it is so evident that playing first violin is an entirely different role.

H Well you suit the role of first violin beautifully!

M Thank you. It was actually a friend who pointed it out to me. She normally plays first but played second on this one occasion and she said to me, “Oh my god, my arms are so tired” because you are playing on the lower strings the entire time.

H It is very different! Especially in the pit playing a Mozart opera. It’s so funny as a viola that I’ve never had the experience of that switching of roles. I can think of people who just epitomise either role, but I think it’s great if one can do both.

M My theory is that everyone can do both but it is the second violin role that requires a particular intellect and personality. It is a very special person that can fulfill that role. 

H It definitely needs a deeper musical understanding. I guess all your Duo Sol years prepared you well for the role of first violin?

M That is a different beast again, playing with a grand piano which is essentially a percussive instrument. I remember starting out with the duo and realising that if you approach it in the same way as a string quartet you are going to be late. It taught me a lot about how to approach the start of the sound and to adjust your breathing.

H That makes complete sense. It’s funny because as a viola player we’re often told that we speak late. It sounds like I need to do some work with piano! I remember that you guys used to play from memory…?

M For Caroline and I, doing most of our repertoire from memory was a positive thing. Very liberating. You need a certain level of confidence to play without the music. You have to feel 100% comfortable. The other element is trust but you have to have an element of trust in every ensemble. Having said that, we had a few bloopers! But somehow we had the personality to overcome it.

H Have you found the iPads a positive thing?

M Absolutely, playing from the score has been a huge benefit - it has really made the rehearsals incredibly productive.

Since 2008, Miki has held the position of Principal Second Violin with the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, and in addition performs with the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and Australian World Orchestra. In 2018, Miki joins Flinders Quartet as guest violinist for their February/March tour and 2018 composer development project.