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Sharon Grigoryan is ready to find a new groove

Music

Ahead of her final concerts with the Australian String Quartet, cellist Sharon Grigoryan reveals what’s next and how she feels about farewelling the quartet and the precious 1743 Guadagnini cello she’s played for the past seven years.

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The Adelaide-based ASQ announced in July that Grigoryan would be leaving the ensemble, with Michael Dahlenburg – principal cellist of the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and founding member of the Hamer Quartet – to join the three continuing members.

Her last Adelaide performance with the quartet will be Legato, at Her Majesty’s Theatre on November 4. The evening of guitar, piano and string music will also feature pianist Konstantin Shamray and see Sharon and her husband Slava Grigoryan (artistic director of the Adelaide Guitar Festival) perform a series of duets ranging from classical to tango and folk.

Here, Sharon – who has a two-year-old son with Slava – tells InDaily what audiences can expect from Legato, why she’s moving on after seven years with the ASQ, what this year has been like for her family, and the new challenges she’s looking forward to exploring.

How does it feel to be preparing for your final performances with the Australian String Quartet?

It is a mixture of feeling at peace and also, of course, nostalgic. My time with the ASQ has been momentous; I have learned so much as a musician and grown as a person, thanks to the musical and personal challenges this job demands.

I don’t regret a second of my time with this amazing institution, and even though I know it’s the right time for me to step back, I am feeling increasingly emotional about saying goodbye to the friends and experiences that this job brings.

Slava and Sharon Grigoryan. Photo: Simon Shiff

What can audiences expect from the Legato program?

I think it’s the ultimate “feel-good” program. The Boccherini “Fandango” Guitar Quintet is such a favourite with audiences, thanks to its pure Baroque beauty in the early movements, and the foot-stomping, fiery final “Fandango” movement that really showcases Spain’s musical influences.

And of course, Dvorak’s Piano Quintet is a whole universe in its own. From the first, tender melody in the cello and piano to the folksy elements of the latter movements, this piece just goes straight to the heart of every listener. I really don’t think it’s possible to walk away from it without a smile on your face!

What has been your most memorable moment with the ASQ?

It’s a good question, but honestly, what is so wonderful about this job is that it is absolutely impossible to pick just one. There are countless musical highlights. For me, it’s the smaller things… catching one of my colleague’s eyes during a performance and sharing a vulnerable musical moment with them or, sometimes, a laugh. Having a young student come up to you after a performance, obviously inspired by what they just heard. Talking to an elderly audience member who thanked us for reminding them of a memory from their early lives that brought tears to their eyes.

We are so lucky in what we do; that we can touch people like that is a blessing.

Why did you decide to leave?

So many reasons. Life isn’t in black and white. The most obvious and predictable reason is, of course, because I have a young family. And that is a reason. I also have realised that I am the sort of person that thrives off a variety of projects, spanning a variety of styles.

I am first and foremost a classical cellist, however, I adore playing in crossover gigs, jazz, blues, folk, and pop bands. I love teaching, and I love curating my little music festival in the Barossa Valley. I hope to do a lot more duo playing and touring with my husband, and revisiting where my heart still lies in symphonic and chamber orchestral playing. I’ve also started to dabble in radio presenting, which has been a really exciting venture for me.

I would be so happy if I end up doing a mixture of everything imaginable…  the possibilities are endless

There are just so many new challenges that I am looking forward to exploring. I truly believe that every different genre of music or gig that you play in informs all the other ones. There are moments in classical pieces that I think, “Oh, that is the same sort of groove that I remember playing in that jazz gig from the other month!” and vice versa. The good old saying “variety is the spice of life” is absolutely translate-able to music.

It must be a wrench to have to relinquish the 1743 Guadagnini cello you’ve played while part of the quartet...

It really is! However, I say with absolute assurance that the Guadagnini fully deserves to be handed on to the ASQ’s next cellist, Michael Dahlenburg – and he deserves it.

When I was first handed this instrument, I told myself that it wasn’t mine, and that when the time came, I would need to give it back. After all, it was my choice to leave the ASQ, and therefore relinquish this instrument.

I think too many performers out there lose their sense of reality when they are lucky enough to have the opportunity to be loaned a priceless instrument. Yes, I have now become used to painting with an infinite array of colours and will have to go back to a set of (albeit wonderful) Derwent pencils, but I did just fine before the Guadagnini, and I will do just fine after it.

Really, when we remember the true hardships that people out there are facing in the world, it’s a tall order to complain about how I need to give back this priceless instrument that was on loan.

Slava and Sharon Grigoryan perform in an empty Festival Theatre during the COVID-19 shutdown.

COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the ASQ’s touring program this year, as well as the Adelaide Guitar Festival – how have you and your family coped during this time?

To be honest, it was a bit of a blessing in disguise. We were so lucky that the ASQ, thanks to the skills of our management team, were able to keep on going through this time, so we weren’t financially destitute. The quartet is lucky in that it’s a small organisation, so we were flexible enough to adapt to the times and therefore keep on going.

Slava and I are used to a life of constantly living out of suitcases; normally we only have a few days at a time at home together before one of us is off again. Our two-year-old son Sebastian has grown up with his own frequent-flyer miles between Adelaide and Melbourne, where his grandparents are! So, for the three of us to be home, uninterrupted, for months on end, has been a kind of paradise for us.

I think a lot of people have realised the benefit of just slowing down; having time to think, process, and enjoy the smaller everyday things in life. It’s been a beautiful and soul-searching time for all of us.

What’s next on the horizon, career-wise?

Well, because of COVID, I don’t know! However, it doesn’t worry me. I am just so excited to once again have the freedom to pursue lots of different paths.

Slava and I certainly want to do more projects together. I also feel very passionately about giving back to the Adelaide musical community in the form of education. Adelaide is small enough to really be able to make a difference, which I think is very exciting.

I would be so happy if I end up doing a mixture of everything imaginable – education, orchestral, chamber music, teaching, curating, presenting, jazz/pop/folk collaborations, theatre productions – the possibilities are endless. I feel so lucky that I am in the position to be able to dream of these things, thanks to my time with the ASQ and also the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

And the best thing for me is that I can say yes, or no, to all of this stuff. If I want to spend a month at home with my family, I have the control to do that.

What’s your favourite piece of music to listen to when you’re just relaxing at home?

It really depends on my mood. More and more, I enjoy silence. With a toddler at home, silence is rare these days! However, if I do feel like listening to music, it’s either anything Baroque (I love Bach keyboard repertoire), or otherwise, jazz (artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Oscar Peterson, Stephane Grappelli, Duke Ellington, but also Pat Metheny and his colleagues, Lyle Mays, Keith Jarrett…), anything from the ECM label, Punch Brothers, Goat Rodeo… there is so much amazing stuff out there.

Lately I’ve been getting into Dolly Parton, too – she’s just such a pillar of strength and love.

Legato, part of the Adelaide Festival Centre’s Music @ The Maj series, will be presented at Her Majesty’s Theatre on November 4. The Australian String Quartet will also play a series of regional concerts in November at Meningie, Robe and Port Noarlunga (details here).

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