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A Modern Take on Early Music with Nevermind

Category: News & Views: International Concert Season

© Rita Cuggia

At a glance, the members of Nevermind could easily be mistaken for some achingly trendy indie band. Bearded, long-haired, roguishly stylish; this edgy quartet radiate the kind of hipster chic you’d expect from the next big chart-toppers.

However, appearances can be deceiving – in reality, they’re musical talents of a very different kind. This French foursome – Jean Rondeau (harpsichord), Anne Besson (flute), Louis Creac’h (violin) and Robin Pharo (viola da gamba) – are less about rock-n-roll and more about Baroque (no roll required).

Nevermind formed six years ago, when four friends, students of the Conservatoire National Supérieur in Paris at the time, casually got together to play some 18th-century chamber works. From these humble beginnings, the group has steadily risen through the ranks of Europe’s early music elite, earning a reputation as a breath of fresh air in what can often be a stuffy niche of the classical world.

The vocabulary used to describe Nevermind’s refreshing brand of unbuttoned Baroque has often focused on their most unconventional qualities; their youth, their relaxed demeanours, the way their concerts are “rewriting the rulebook” of what early music can be.

But it is, perhaps, ironic that by defying the period music stereotypes, Nevermind have ended up pigeonholed as the enfant terrible of historically informed performance. “There is a dichotomy in the way we are spoken about and the way we see ourselves. We are just us, there is no stylist, no strategy,” Besson says.

“But we do hope we can bring more people, a different kind of audience, to the concert hall,” Pharo continues.

“In Europe, classical audiences are usually older people, and it is a concern, who will come to our concerts when the audiences we play to today are no longer here? We really wanted to open up Baroque music and even classical music in general to younger people. So we prefer the atmosphere of our concerts to be very relaxed – we don’t wear formal clothes or all-black like many traditional groups do.

“We try and make the setting very accessible. When we perform we like to speak to the audience, explain to them a bit about what we do. We don’t want to be that sort of untouchable artist on stage who is doing amazing things but who doesn’t need or want to reach out to the audience. In fact, we try to be the opposite. It is our responsibility to reach out and connect with the audience as much as possible.”

"We don’t want to be that sort of untouchable artist on stage who is doing amazing things but who doesn’t need or want to reach out to the audience. In fact, we try to be the opposite. It is our responsibility to reach out and connect with the audience as much as possible."

While Nevermind’s style may be a selling point, with the added bonus of attracting new audiences, it isn’t without significant substance. Beneath the laidback vibe and disarming image is a musical vision of remarkable sophistication.

As showcased on Nevermind’s two albums – their 2016 debut disc Conversations, featuring little-known masterworks by Quentin and Guillemain, followed in 2017 by a superb rendering of Telemann’s often neglected Paris Quartets – rigorous period technique is the bedrock of their musicmaking. But this is tempered by a surprisingly flexible musicality that teems with a degree of individual flare that isn’t commonly found in historical performance.

“We’ve really built something together – we’ve been playing together now for almost six years –  so we know exactly what each other’s capabilities are, what is possible, who can do this or that. We understand each other so intimately,” Besson says of Nevermind’s dynamic sense of ensemble. “We discuss the music thoroughly. Making time in the rehearsal process to express ourselves and our ideas is absolutely vital to us. We also play mainly quartets, rather than trio sonatas [although there will be some trio sonata repertoire during this Australian tour]. This means we all have our own part, there is no continuo, which also allows us to explore more individuality.”

While remaining reverent to the Baroque pedigree of the repertoire, the members of Nevermind are more than period specialists. These proud musical omnivores also bring other experiences to bear on their interpretations. In addition to her skills on the traverso (the Baroque flute), Besson also studied the modern orchestral flute as well as the Irish flute, a folk music staple. Jean Rondeau is a talented jazz improviser as well as an award-winning harpsichordist.

Hints of these seemingly remote styles – jazz, folk, contemporary – add an additional layer of textural depth to their performances, Besson explains. “Musically we want our conversation – the conversation that takes place between four musicians – to really connect. Baroque music is about convincing people. It’s rhetoric, and without communicating a clear point of view, a clear intention, it is meaningless. I mean, you can just play a line just to make it beautiful, but why? Why stop there? As musicians, surely we want to take our listener on a journey. We want to tell a story, bring the music to life.”

“Music from the 19th-century onwards is maybe more picturesque, more illustrative in its nature. But in the music of the Baroque, you need to speak with your instrument,” Pharo adds. “It truly is a conversation, it’s more than just notes.”

Nevermind tour Australia from 10 - 26 October.

See full tour details and book tickets here.

Listen to our Nevermind playlist below:

About the author

Maxim Boon is a British-born journalist, critic and editor who has been based in Australia for six years. He is the current Editor of Time Out Sydney and formerly the Chief Classical Music Critic for The Age in Melbourne. He writes about classical music and opera for The Age, Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, ArtsHub, Daily Review and Limelight Magazine.