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The Graduate Interviews: The De Beauvoir Piano Trio

What makes a chamber group a success? What gives them that special something that makes them last the course when others can't? It's been talked about in masterclasses since the dawn of the chamber group, talent is the entry level requirement. From there it's an ability to communicate, to navigate travel constraints, time constraints and the sea of admin that never fails to detract from those precious moments in the practice room.

When you finally get there, how do you communicate? If you have a difference of opinion do you treat the other suggestions with respect or secretly sabotage to get your own way?

My guests this week are a group I have followed since their beginning and have been continually swept away by their passion and their overwhelming musicality, not to mention their incredible success in a very short space of time.

The De Beauvoir Piano Trio, burst onto the music scene two years ago with a fierce desire to promote marginalised composers and musicians. Exploring music from a unique perspective, incorporating concepts from linguistics and literature studies.

Pianist Élisabeth Pion, violinist En Yuan Khong and cellist Charlotte Kaslin have gained international acclaim winning 3rd Prize in the IX Vainiunas Chamber Ensembles Competition in Lithuania, 2nd prize of the Virtuoso & Bel Canto Chamber Music Competition in Italy as well as becoming finalist in the St-Martin-in-the-Fields Chamber Competition, sadly postponed due to Covid-19.

In January this year the group completed a residency with the Britten Pears Young Artists’ Programme and have been mentored by some of the best including Adrian Brendel, András Keller and Ursula Smith.

photo credit: Olivia da Costa Photography

Attend one of their concerts or watch their videos on YouTube and you'll instantly see a deep inner dialogue connecting all three players of the De Beauvoir Piano Trio, one that is frequently sought after but rarely obtained.

This unique connection all started with a chance encounter between En Yuan and Charlotte at the Santander Music Festival in 2018 when they were randomly matched to play Faure's String Quartet in E minor with violist Miguel de Silva.

'It was an instant connection, like a spark!' En Yuan describes. After both returning to London, En Yuan and Charlotte were not willing to let this musical connection pass them by. 'I feel like the way we work together just happened really organically without pressure,' cellist Charlotte Kaslin is keen to stress. 'In the past, when I've been in chamber groups we've just decided we're going to be a quartet or a trio, and that pressure has just never really worked!'

'It was the first time that I'd had such an easy connection working with someone,' En Yuan explains. 'That doesn't necessarily mean that we agree on everything, because we don't, but I think we have a very instinctive way of working with each other. It means that we can navigate different interpretations much easier than talking about it for hours and hours and getting nowhere. We kind of operate on the basis of complete respect.'

Two years later and during a global pandemic, the duo finally find the perfect pianist to share their vision. Pianist Élisabeth Pion with only four days to prepare, auditioned for the pair with Mendelssohn's c minor piano trio and instantly blew them away.

'It was like an atomic bomb.' Élisabeth recalls. 'I knew there was something special happening. Then I remember Charlotte turned around and was just like, "so would like to do it?"'.

Soon after, the trio were straight into an intense programme of recordings, auditioning for schemes and concerts. Mixing hectic schedules and frequent international flights has become second nature to the trio as rehearsal time is never plentiful. With these pressures, how do the trio manage to keep this connection between them so strong? Élisabeth puts it down to the fundamentals of working as a team.

'The raw material was really good. With some groups you play and the basic material is not interesting enough to develop. I think it relies heavily on respect and open communication. It's a very fulfilling relationship based on care, respect, commitment, all of that. I'm speaking for myself but I think you can't sustain a relationship where you all hate each other. You spend so much time together as a chamber group that it has emotional implications and costs. So I think it's not only great, but necessary for it to be with beautiful human beings that you love.'

When it comes to the nitty gritty of rehearsing, the trio have come up with some intuitive ways to make the most of the short amount of time they have available. With Élisabeth spending a lot of her time out of the country and even on a different continent, the group divide and conquer with En Yuan and Charlotte finding time with just each other to focus on the string specific elements such as tuning, bowing and vibrato. A solution Élisabeth is extremely fond of:

'The number of times a pianist sits in rehearsals when they don't need to be there because the others are just sorting out things like bowings is insane! I'm really grateful for that arrangement'.

"You spend so much time together as a chamber group that it has emotional implications and costs. So I think it's not only great, but necessary for it to be with beautiful human beings that you love"

- Élisabeth Pion

There's a delicate balance that needs to be struck with all chamber groups between having enough time for rehearsals without booking in so many you forfeit the quality of work rehearsed. A balance violinist En Yuan has found works well in the group and is one she is now incorporating into all aspects of her playing.

'I've had groups where we're rehearsing pretty much every day for hours, and it will get worse. I think, for us, in a way, because the time is so limited it means that when we do meet and get to work, we arrive really well prepared.'

Knowing the score inside out and thorough listening to their programme are just some of the things this trio does alongside the patchwork rehearsals between players. When it comes to preparing for competitions the group gets even more inventive. Something that clearly works for the group as the trio received third prize in the IX Stanys Vainiunas Competition only last month.

Mental preparation became the cornerstone of their preparation, especially when it came to bullet-proofing the mind in anticipation of the unpredictable nature of live performance.

'We talk about all the things that could go wrong.' Charlotte says. 'We talk about what our fears are individually or as a group and then we decide that instead of being scared that my bow is going to be shaking for example, I decide that it's not going to shake tomorrow and I'm going to feel fantastic! We decode our fears or anxiety like this, I think that is really useful.'

'I think as well, when it comes to preparing for a competition, it can be so tempting to worry about what the panel are looking for or what they want from us.' En Yuan adds. 'I remember when we were discussing repertoire we were unsure whether to present a programme solely by female composers in the last round.' The group takes their name after the celebrated French existentialist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir. 'Eventually, we decided to go with it because these are the works that represent us best and these are the pieces that we are most passionate about so it's important to us to share our interpretation with our audience.'

'I think it's most important that you feel you've represented yourself and your strengths to the best of your ability. What you're passionate about and your musical identity. Whether it's accepted or not, there's nothing you can do but at least you have been true to yourself.' En Yuan concludes.

So what advice do these three extraordinary musicians have for those of us who dream of making a chamber group work outside the comfort zone of a music college life?

For En Yuan, it's about embracing the freedom that comes from stepping outside the safety of the conservatoire walls. 'Of course graduating can be scary but it's also very freeing. It's a chance to develop connections outside your immediate circle.'

For the trio, with the exception of Élisabeth, who is finishing her artist diploma at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the others had graduated from various different colleges, En Yuan from Guildhall and Charlotte from both the Royal Academy of Music and the Royal College of Music. Meeting away from a college environment has enabled the group to form outside the pressures and constraints often faced by other college chamber groups.

One factor that makes sustaining a chamber group outside of college difficult to navigate is of course, finding a rehearsal space that meets all your requirements. This is where the mix and match rehearsal approach really works for the trio. 'We basically just compromise', En Yuan says. 'Charlotte and I live an hour and a half from each other, so for the times when we need to rehearse string specific passages, we'll meet at each other's houses.' For full rehearsal or in preparation for competitions and concerts (outside of the Guildhall practice rooms) the trio have found solace in their residencies, as Élisabeth explains:

'Places like Britten Pears are great for rehearsals. You basically have a concert hall for your entire stay. I think it's good to find facilities where you're basically isolated and can really focus on the chamber music and your time together. Obviously you cannot do this all the time but definitely a few times a year.'

One thing that really strikes you about this group is their respect, their commitment and the care they have for one another. A theme that has been hard to pull away from within this interview. It's only natural that this too, forms an integral part of their advice for others.

'I'm reminded of a phrase,' Élisabeth pauses. 'Look for it, but don't force it. I always knew I wanted to play with a chamber group and I've had some groups but none of them became more committed and serious but eventually it happened. I think if it happens without you realising and feels natural and organic, that can only be a good thing.'

'It's about communication.' Charlotte reiterates. 'It's important from the beginning to establish where you are all at and what you want and how much you are ready to give to the group. What makes you happy and what you individually need. It's something we are still learning but it's so important to take the time to work those things out first.'

The trio will be performing in LMR Chamber festival in August, before which the trio have a little residency in France. But the group are keen to stress that the future for them lies firmly in the direction of improvement through the help of schemes and academies.

It's been so refreshing to talk to a group that attributes their success to the respect, admiration and love that they hold for one another and I for one wish them every success in the years to come.

Until next time,

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