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A 360º experience of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam

From the 27th January to the 3rd February 2024, the world's largest string quartet festival was held in Amsterdam. With more than 40 concerts by 25 international string quartets in 8 days, it brought musicians and audiences together to celebrate the grandeur of old and freshly brewed string quartet music. From Haydn to Rihm through Beethoven and Bartók, visitors were granted hours and hours of not only concerts, but also masterclasses, talks and the warmest welcoming atmosphere… 

It could work as the opening of a children’s book, don’t you think? Well, maybe it would be more suited for a string-quartet-lover kind of reader. Anyway, as magical as it may sound, this is not a fairytale, this happened for real - and I was lucky enough to be part of it! In fact, I got an all-inclusive experience of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam: as part of the team, sneaking into the audience and even getting the chance to perform in a pre-concert with Brillante Quartet. Here’s a bit of what it all looked like…

Aftermovie SQBA 2024 © Nicola Sersale / Komeda Films

Working in the SQBA

In October 2023 I entered the team of the String Quartet Biennale Amsterdam as production assistant. Being my first experience working in a festival, the learning curve has been totally exponential. Besides the more practical things I didn’t know at the beginning (such as what a draaiboek, stageplot or rider were, for example), I had certainly no idea what the dimensions of the festival were; I mean, I knew it’s “Het grootste strijkkwartet festival ter wereld” (or the largest string quartet festival in the world, if you struggle with Dutch just like I do), but how big can that actually be? I’m not “only” talking about concerts and events, but about all the details that need to be taken into consideration around those from a productional point of view: rehearsal spaces, decorations, food, technical requirements, travel information and a very long etcetera.

During the months leading up to the festival, it sometimes felt as if I was doing things blindfolded, because I couldn’t quite picture what the outcome would look like. That’s why seeing everything come to life and the pieces of the puzzle fit together helped me get an overview of what we had been working on. 

I remember when I was a kid and I used to go to school camps in the summer, where we barely got any sleep and our days were filled with tons of activities and all we wanted to do was stay there for the rest of the year and never go back to school. I have to say I kept having this thought of being in a school camp during the Biennale, equally exhausting as exciting. Luckily, unlike in most of the school camps that I went to, I didn’t get sick this time 😝

Matangi Quartet & Ruben Hein, Australian String Quartet & Dr. Lou Bennett AM, Ragazze Quartet. © Eduardus Lee

Attending concerts during the SQBA

Before the Biennale, I had roughly listened to a handful of the quartets on the line-up live, so it was amazing to dive deeper into the world of string quartet and realize how unique and different the personality of each of them can be: the purity and transparency of the sound of Danish, or the joy and freshness of Simply, among others. I also loved getting to know new repertoire and listening to a different interpretation of pieces that I’ve already played, which opened my mind to new ideas. Of course, within the concerts I attended there were some that I liked and some that I didn’t, and if musically speaking there’s something I’ve reassured myself after the SQBA, that’s the following: the music that speaks to me the most is the one that goes beyond the notes letting the voice and personality of the musicians and the quartet shine through. The one where you can listen to, feel and see the interaction between the musicians on stage, how they sort of tease and challenge each other to find the magic in the music and tell their story. In other words, I love it when I hear a musical dialogue between the players.

After a week of broadening my sound palette and string quartet knowledge, you can imagine how inspired I was to go into the practice room and spend hours and hours trying new things out, experimenting with sound and looking at the music from a different perspective. In fact, since I graduated from my Master’s in Classical Music last June, I’ve realized how much I miss going to weekly lessons and working on pieces and performances that inspire me. The amount of time I have to practice now is much less than it’s ever been, and my goals have also changed a lot. Although I’m slowly learning how to navigate this new reality, it’s so nice to get such a punch of inspiration!

Butter Quartet & Lute Legends, Danish String Quartet, Animato Kwartet. © Eduardus Lee

Before jumping into the last part of the article, let me briefly mention what I think is the common thread that connects all of these aspects of the Biennale: the human quality ❤️. I’ve seen so much passion, care, love and attention to details in every moment of the preparation and the week of the festival itself, that it challenged me to do my best, learn from my colleagues and add as much as I could to the team. It also gave me the energy I needed to get through the festival week!

Playing a pre-concert at the SQBA

Okay, last but not least, what probably was the most special moment of the festival for me: the preconcert I played with Brillante Quartet. We performed three movements of the String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95, “Serioso”, by Beethoven. It was the first time we played the piece for an audience, and my God, did we enjoy it! There are still loooooots of things that we need to keep working on, they’ll always be, but the fact that we had fun on stage means much more to me than giving a ‘perfect’ performance - what does perfect mean anyway?

As we were sitting on the stage waiting for the introduction talk to be over, nerves and excitement were growing into this energy that I only get when I play violin, which transforms into something even stronger when I play chamber music. I guess the days before our performance were so nourishing to me, that they helped me enormously to get into this mindset of seeing past my insecurities and letting myself go to the music, something I always struggle with. And of course, being part of the festival from the inside and feeling the support of my colleagues was also a big source of motivation. 

I’m still processing the emotional hangover of the festival while looking at it from some distance and perspective, and the more I think about it, the more fascinating I find it. There are still much more things to the festival that I didn't mention in this article, but I hope I've been able to illustrate what a special experience it was to me. The next edition will take place from the 24th to the 31st January 2026, and if I were you, I’d mark those dates in my calendar! You can have a look at the website of the Biennale and subscribe to their newsletter if you don’t want to miss any news 😀 (And don't forget to subscribe to my newsletter if you want to know more about my projects!)

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