Bury St Edmunds: Bury Festival comes alive with the music of a lustful pursuit

Kerenza Peacock

Kerenza Peacock - Credit: Archant

SUFFOLK-born musician Kerenza Peacock, first violin with The Pavao String Quartet, can’t wait for her Bury Festival date next week – not just because she gets to perform a wonderful piece of music in atmospheric surroundings but because it will provide audiences with an opportunity to hear about one of the strangest romances in music history.

Kerenza Peacock and Natalia from the Pavao Quartet -

Kerenza Peacock and Natalia from the Pavao Quartet -

The former Ipswich High School student is back in the county to perform Janacek’s String Quartet No 2 – otherwise known as Intimate Letters – at the Bury Theatre Royal.

The Pavao Quartet. Clockwise from top left: Kerenza Peacock (violin), Bryony James (cello), Natalia

The Pavao Quartet. Clockwise from top left: Kerenza Peacock (violin), Bryony James (cello), Natalia Gomes (viola) and Jenny Sacha (violin). Kerenza says of her friends and colleagues: Natalia is the one whos always playing the practical jokes on us. She has tendency to scare you at any given moment by jumping out at you or throwing things at you! Bryony always manages to make us laugh in any stressful situation. She diffuses the tension. I dont know about me and Jen, really. Were typical violinists, I think, and bumble along! Im kind of the boss, because I do all the admin. Jens lovely, because she always gives us home-made presents before we do anything scary, like a new recording or a really important concert. Shes very thoughtful. (quartet) EADT 8/12/07

Kerenza said that the music charts the scandalous, unrequited love affair between Czech composer Leoš Janácek and Kamila Stösslová, a married woman 30 years his junior.

Kerenza persuaded Bryan Adams, the rock star, who she first met when they played at the Queen’s Ju

Kerenza persuaded Bryan Adams, the rock star, who she first met when they played at the QueenÄôs Jubilee Concert in Buckingham Palace, to take some publicity photos of the quartet,Äù says Kerenza Peacock. ItÄôs the defining image Äì a serious one! Äì of The Pavao Quartet's Elgar and Bax CD. ES 12.5.10 - Credit: Archant

It was an illicit love affair, conducted largely through a series of passionate and eloquent letters which, in turn, inspired some of the 20th century’s most beautiful music.

Kerenza Peacock and The Pavao Quartet

Kerenza Peacock and The Pavao Quartet (quartet)

Kerenza and her fellow performers in the quartet will be joined on stage by theatre legend Timothy West, who will be playing Janácek and reading passages from the letters.

Timothy West patron of the BuryTheatre Royal return to Suffolk to perform alongside the Pavao String

Timothy West patron of the BuryTheatre Royal return to Suffolk to perform alongside the Pavao String Quartet

Speaking during a break in rehearsals, Kerenza said that it’s wonderful to be playing a piece full of lust and passion, which was born out of a relentless explosion of creative energy and yet, at the same time, was also a tragic tale.

Czech composer Leoš Janácek with his long suffering wife Zdenka, pictured in 1881. He began his affa

Czech composer Leo Janácek with his long suffering wife Zdenka, pictured in 1881. He began his affair with Kamila Stösslová in 1917 - Credit: Archant

“It’s wonderful that through Timothy we can share this amazing story with the audience before we play the piece.

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“It was a very one-sided affair. She kept saying ‘Leave me alone. Stop bothering me.’ She never replied to his letters. Yet he was completely obsessed with her beauty and her charisma. She really was his muse in the truest sense of the word. Today he would probably be regarded as a stalker.”

She said that throughout the would-be affair they remained married to other people.

“While Janácek was obviously a great man – he wrote such marvellous music – he wasn’t functioning properly at another level. There was some sort of connection missing.” She pauses for a moment before adding with a nervous laugh: “That’s often the way with composers, I find.

“I think he lost touch with reality. He got very carried away with the whole notion of this affair, which I think you can when you have a very creative mind. He was also very highly strung and this make-believe affair went on for about 15 years.”

She said that Janácek was amazingly insensitive to the feelings of his wife, who bravely faced the world even though her husband heaped indignities upon her.

“There’s a lovely moment when he writes to Kamila and he tells her: ‘I can’t understand why my wife is so cross; she is not speaking to me at the moment.

‘Last week she said that she didn’t want to come to the opera with me when you’re there because it would make her look really old. I told her that she should just pretend that she is your mother.’ Suggesting to your wife that she should pose as the mother of your mistress is not a great way to endear yourself to anyone.”

She said that Timothy West was terrific at making Janácek appear to be a real person, rather than an eccentric buffoon.

She said that there is a real element of tragedy in the story – not just in the fact that this great composer was clearly self-deluded.

“The real tragedy, which you don’t get to hear during the evening because it is just Janácek talking, is that he dies saving her son.

“Eventually he persuaded her to come and stay with him. During the visit her little boy got lost in the forest and Janácek went out to look for him and got caught in a rainstorm. He rescued the boy but unfortunately got pneumonia and died.

“There’s a huge sense of irony here. He finally got the girl but then died – and just to add insult to injury, he never got to hear his greatest work. It wasn’t published until after his death, so he never got to hear it performed.

“The affair was also very much covered up by his family and it wasn’t until the 1970s that the letters were uncovered and the world became aware that this wonderful piece of music was about this one woman, who remained largely out of reach.”

Sadly, Kamila’s story was equally tragic. She died of cancer soon after him. “If that wasn’t bad enough, her grave was desecrated by the Nazis, so her story didn’t have a happy ending either.”

Kerenza said that an audience’s appreciation of the music will be increased by knowing the heartbreak behind the story.

“It was a very odd relationship – also, we don’t know how much of this was just in his head.”

She added that they don’t know what it was that finally convinced her they should meet or what Janácek felt when they were finally united. “The sad thing for us is that when she came to stay with him, at the end, he stopped writing the letters, so we don’t know how he was feeling when his dream became a reality.” She said that Intimate Letters will form the second half of their Bury Festival concert. “Timothy West embodies Janácek and will read excerpts from the letters, and in between we play short excerpts from the pieces that are connected to the part that he has just read.

“The music is wonderful and each section is connected to one of the letters. He’s saying ‘This bar here is where I first saw you, this passage is where I first knew I was in love with you’, and it really makes it come alive for the audience.

“It’s their story told in music. At the end, after he has read the last letter, he walks off stage and we perform the piece right through.”

Kerenza said that it will be wonderful to be back in Suffolk again, having left for London at the age of 18 when she gained a place at the Royal Academy of Music.

Since then she has travelled the world, playing with her three friends who make up the Pavao String Quartet.

The quartet has been playing for 14 years, having been formed in the very first week of her studies at the Royal Academy.

“We were four friends who found that we really got on well, we played well together and that was it really. Lots of groups get formed but then split up because they find that their personalities aren’t matched or their playing doesn’t gel, but we had immediate success, the Academy started promoting us and we started getting a lot of work.”

The Pavao String Quartet are Jenny Sacha (violin), Bryony James (cello) Natália Gomes (viola) and Kerenza (first violin).

“The quartet is called Pavao – it rhymes with Kapow. It’s a Portuguese word. It’s Portuguese for Peacock, which is my surname. Quartets are traditionally named after the first violinist but we didn’t want to be called The Peacock Quartet, so we thought that Pavao would be quite cool.”

They have recorded four albums under their own names, plus have provided backing for numerous pop and classical stars from Noel Gallagher to Hayley Westenra to Kanye West.

“Since we left the academy, it’s been our full-time job. For 10 years we have been playing all over the world, which we have been very lucky to do. We all do projects away from the quartet, which is great because it keeps us fresh.

“I am one of the soloists for St Martin’s in the Fields and every six weeks or so I play the Four Seasons or some other piece by Vivaldi in the church by Trafalgar Square. Then I play on a lot of pop albums. I play with Adele and Emeli Sandé. I went on tour with Adele and that’s great because it’s a lovely atmosphere.”

Kerenza said that she enjoys playing a wide variety of music because it prevents her work on more traditional works from becoming stale.

“I love the fact I have a career where every day I am doing something different. For example, last Sunday I was in Harlow, playing Dvorák Violin Concerto, then on Monday I was recording in a studio with Kanye West. It couldn’t be more diverse – which is what I love.

“I remember as a quartet we were playing Beethoven’s string quartets in the evening while during the day we were recording with a jazz group. Then the following evening we were back playing Beethoven again. It made me look at the concert in a whole new light because I realised that Beethoven was improvising when he first came up with those pieces. It made me approach my playing in a fresher way because sometimes classical music is in danger of becoming rather like a series of museum pieces.

“You become scared to touch them or scared to alter them because they have been revered for so many hundreds of years. I think they should be regarded as fresh, living, breathing things. Music is this invisible art form. You can’t measure it or see it. It is out there in the air. I think that by playing all these different styles of music it helps keep my approach fresh.”

She said that she feels sorry for young players starting out today who can download at the touch of a button a huge range of earlier performances of classical pieces. “They are bombarded with dozens of brilliant interpretations immortalised by people who have gone before and it becomes very difficult to do something different. You find that you end up doing an impersonation of somebody else’s well-regarded performance and forget to be creative yourself.

“But, when you are thrown into a recording session for a pop track, and although it’s only three minutes long, it’s the first time that anyone’s heard it. It’s been freshly created and you have a broader licence to do what you want with it.

“No-one will say: ‘No, don’t do that; that’s wrong’, whereas if you are playing Mozart, sometimes you have to have more courage to ignore the critics and go and do something a bit more daring.

“Working on both sides of the music industry reminds me that it’s all supposed to be creative. I like to think that if Beethoven was here now, he would say: ‘Stop trying to play it like that violinist – put your own take on it.’ It’s difficult trying to remember that sometimes.”

n Timothy West and The Pavao String Quartet are performing Intimate Letters, Janacek’s String Quartet No 2 at Bury Theatre Royal on May 19 as part of the Bury Festival.

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