Music and Beyond: Up from Down Under with the Orava Quartet

Orava Quartet is Daniel Kowalik (first violin), David Dalseno (second violin), Thomas Chawner (viola) and  Karol Kowalik, cello.

The Australian music scene is a bit unknown to Canadian audiences. But one ensemble that definitely is starting to emerge is the Orava Quartet. Founded in 2007 the quartet has been performing around the world from the Sydney Opera House to the United Arab Emirates. They are the first Australian quartet to have been signed to Universal Music and worked closely with the world-renowned Takács Quartet. The quartet is: Daniel Kowalik (first violin), David Dalseno (second violin), Thomas Chawner (viola) and  Karol Kowalik, cello. They will make their Ottawa debut on July 5 with the Music and Beyond Festival. Before they land in Canada, the group answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. What are you performing here and why this music?

David Dalseno: We are performing a whole range of music, from classical to contemporary, from more traditional repertoire to modern Australian music. We’ll be playing Haydn, Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Schulhoff along with Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet from our album with Deutsche Grammophon, Polish composer Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa which is almost a signature piece from which our quartet derived its name and Ross Edwards’ Summer Dances is a little bit of Australian summer for our Canadian audiences. Each work stands on its own as great music, but together they show just how diverse string quartet repertoire can be.

Q. What are the ensemble’s musical inclinations? 

David Dalseno: I’d say we probably tend to focus more on the classics of the string quartet canon but there really is a huge amount of variety within that. We try to program and learn all types of repertoire – we end up playing some ‘new music’ each season, and the Ross Edwards piece is from 2012 — but it is hard to go past a Haydn quartet.

Q. Where would you like to be in five years? In 10?

David Dalseno: We are fortunate that our professional career is taking us nationally around Australia, and now internationally. It would be great to continue to grow and develop our performance careers, with more regular overseas touring and new albums every couple of years, and at the same time continue to grow and develop our appreciation and understanding of the amazing music that we have the privilege of performing.

Q. Why did you pick the name Orava?

Daniel Kowalik: We named our quartet after Kilar‘s work Orawa. It’s a piece my brother Karol and I grew up with. We are of Polish origin and Orawa is a work depicting the stunning Tatra Mountains there; it’s full of Polish folk melodies, typical of the region and depicts the beauty of the landscape as well as the Górale people — indigenous to the Polish, Czech and Slovak mountains. We ended up choosing the Slovakian spelling with a ‘v’ to make pronunciation easier for audiences.

Q. When was the ensemble formed?

Daniel Kowalik: The ensemble was formed in December 2007. Originally there were three Kowalik siblings including my sister on second violin. This all happened while we were students at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. My sister was really keen to form a quartet and we were patient in waiting for the right violist to come along… which is how we found Thomas.

Q. Who is in the group today?

Daniel Kowalik: My sister came to the difficult decision to leave the group when the Quartet decided to further our studies overseas. We were very fortunate to be invited for a residency at the University of Colorado, where we spent two years studying with the Tàkacs Quartet and rehearsing intensively together. The year before our move to the U.S., in 2011, David joined the group, and we’ve played together in this format ever since.

Q. What is it like having two brothers (Kowalik) in the group?

Daniel Kowalik: There is no sibling rivalry. My parents moved to Australia when I was extremely young and Karol was the first one to be born in Australia. My immediate family is the only family I have an Australia, so it would be foolish to have any sibling rivalry with my brother, whom I see on a daily basis.

Q. Why chamber music?

Daniel Kowalik: Some of the greatest music ever written is for the string quartet genre. We are very lucky to work on and perform some of our favourite music, both old and new. Through the years we have also had the privilege of collaborating with some incredible artists (including Mahan Esfahani, Olga Kern, Simon Tedeschi, Greta Bradman, Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner for Sydney Opera House) performing some of the great chamber works that require more than a string quartet, particularly for festivals; we’re always up for exciting projects!

Q. I’m not familiar with classical music in Australia. Is it a vibrant scene?

Thomas Chawner: Australia has a comparatively small but extremely varied and active classical music scene, with ensembles ranging from small, historically informed chamber groups and highly acclaimed chamber orchestras, to seven or eight state-funded symphony orchestras — as well as many excellent soloists, contemporary classical ensembles and, of course, a few string quartets like us. I imagine it’s similar to Canada but to be honest, my experience with the Canadian classical music scene is just of the Banff Centre (which was amazing, as we were there for the summer chamber music festival). I guess we’ll know more after this tour. But we know several great Canadian musicians – we get quite a few on tour in Australia — and have only good things to say of them.

Q. One thing I do know about Australians … they like to travel. Where do you want to go that you haven’t been?

Thomas Chawner: Australians do love to travel! I think it is partly because we are so far away from the rest of the world, we are curious to see it. The quartet has always loved to travel. We’ve toured together around Asia, North America and New Zealand, and are really looking forward to going overseas again with this Canada tour. Next on our list of places to go/play are China and Europe. Half of the Quartet is of Polish origin, so Poland would be a great place to start.

Q. Further to that: Is travel imperative for the success of the ensemble?

Thomas Chawner: Definitely. It is a necessity for us, especially given the geographical size and location of Australia. We travel for almost all of our concerts —  with distances to the closest capital city to us (in Brisbane) being around 1,000 kilometres. International touring is always an amazing opportunity too, and I think it is a great way to keep moving the quartet forwards.

Q. I see you have worked with members of the St. Lawrence Quartet, one of Canada’s finest? When was that and what did they teach you?

Karol Kowalik: We had the pleasure of working with Barry Shiffman, on a Brahms quartet I think. That was in 2008; we also watched him play the viola in the Brahms G minor Piano Quartet. That was a lesson in itself. I was inspired by his understanding of the role of the inner voice, and the energy he gave to the performance. I recall him encouraging us to explore very early recordings from Brahms’ day, not just string playing but also piano playing. There is so much to learn from these recordings. Their sense of rubato and pulse is fascinating.

Q. This is I believe your first visit to Ottawa. What are you expecting to find? 

Karol Kowalik: Yes, it will be our first time in Ottawa – we’re looking forward to it! I guess it’s going to be a bit similar to Canberra as a government-based city with embassies, and lots of diverse, cultural events. When I think of Canada in a broader sense I think of a very vibrant cultural scene. An inspiring thing I’ve noticed is that there seems to be so much support for young musicians, not only in studies but also helping young and upcoming musicians make that transition into the professional setting. Take the lending of fine instruments for example. Unfortunately most musicians cannot afford these prized possessions. To put them into the hands of the youth says a lot about how a country values and supports culture, particularly music.

Music and Beyond presents the Orava Quartet
Where: Allsaints Event Space
When: July 5 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:
Where: First Baptist Church
When: Jul 6 at 2 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.