“I know which String Quartet I would choose on the Titanic …”
What image do the words “string quartet” usually evoke for you? Four worthy individuals seated formally in a semicircle round a little spinney of music stands, seriously and diligently working through their scores, while a polite audience silently struggles against the somehow suddenly overwhelming urge to cough?
Think again! Graffiti Classics are to your standard string quartet what Banksy is to the National Gallery: inventive, playful, accessible, full of unexpected surprises – the street art of classical music. This is actually how the group came into being. Young London music conservatoire graduates from Ireland, Poland and Japan met while street-performing and, sharing the opinion that classical music should not be prohibitively elitist but fun and inclusive for everyone, came together to form this unique evolution from string quartet to all-singing all-dancing hilariously comedic exponent of stringed classics for the masses.
They provided an amazing afternoon’s entertainment for one of the most varied audiences you could imagine. Pre-schooler to 98-year-old great grandmother alike were enthralled by their limitless vitality and exuberance as they whirled and twirled and leapt around the stage, bringing Beethoven to life in disco style or dancing a knees-up country jig around and under the arms of the double bassist while all still simultaneously playing their instruments with no audible hint of a wobble. The amount of horsehair dangling from the bows at the end was testament to the sheer energy of their performance!
No challenge was too great for them. After some comedic storytelling from the captivating front man, who adopted a marvellous comically lugubrious persona, they proceeded to give the most beautiful, moving performance of Bach’s 'Air on the G String' whilst simultaneously undertaking a kind of variant on a limbo dance until all were playing flat on their backs, the double bassist completely covered by the huge instrument lying on top of him.This was followed by a delightful rendering of 'Scheherezade', starting with all players still completely supine but popping up one by one, the double bass player strenuously struggling to recover his upright position just in time as his part moved from plucking to bowing. Virtuoso is an over-used word but is entirely apt here.
Magical musical excerpts and memorable moments were too many to mention. One of the audience favourites was a Romanian piece whose name I couldn’t catch but was referred to as the “Birdie” song. This feature the Japanese violinist emulating a range of birdcalls on his instrument whilst the other violin was wielded as a rifle to shoot down the birds in the sky (actually, plastic chickens joyously caught by the audience).The absolutely most impressive moment for me was the creation of an incredibly, overwhelmingly realistic prolonged sound-picture of a pirate ship at sea, complete with creaking timbers, squeaking ropes, seaspray and seagulls, conjured purely from those four stringed instruments, using harmonics and other techniques.
It made me think – if I had the misfortune to be stuck on a sinking Titanic, I can’t imagine a string quartet I’d rather have to enliven my final hours. But I’d want to make sure there was a lifeboat secretly hidden away for them, so they could bring all this wonderful music to life for many more audiences!