Claude Debussy was only 31 when he composed his first (and only) string quartet in 1893. Anton Webern composed Langsamer Satz for string quartet in 1905 when he was 22. And Mendelssohn was just 18 years old when he composed his String Quartet No.2 in A minor. In fact, every composer in this program was under 35 years old when they crafted these beautiful chamber works.  

For cellist Yeeun Heo, it’s a rare treat to perform the music of young composers who would evolve into the world’s most famous. 

‘For me, one of the joys of playing and listening to a famous composer's early works is that I can reminisce about my past,’ Yeeun says. Born in 1992, the virtuoso was in her early 20s when she embarked upon her own impressive career venture – the launch of Esmé Quartet. Founded in Germany in 2016, the young group would quickly grow into a world-class chamber ensemble, marked by a global touring schedule and multiple competition wins. 

Three of Esmé’s founding players were born in Korea – Yeeun Heo, and violinists Yuna Ha and Wonhee Bae. Noting their shared backgrounds, Wonhee says they formed a special bond while studying together in Germany before entering the music industry as a ‘young all-Asian female group to begin our career together’. In 2018, they would become the first all-woman group to win the International String Quartet Competition. 

In 2023, the ensemble welcomed Belgian-American violist Dimitri Murrath who recalls that ‘from the first note playing together, it felt as if I had been playing with this group for many years’. 

‘There is really something about how all four of us can breathe together and seem to be on the same wavelength,’ Dimitri says.  

Yeeun and Wonhee describe their connection in a similar way, saying their group feels like a family. And it’s a family in which meals are cooked and shared together, arm-wrestling matches are commonplace (Yeeun loses), and a good story yields a roaring laugh (even if Dimitri’s jokes fly under the radar). 

To Yuna, this closeness means that each player knows what the other is trying to communicate – ‘just by looking at each other, without having to say anything’. 

‘Every moment spent with these people has been special,’ Yuna says. 

These musicians have developed international reputations in such a short number of years, much like the composers on their program. Wonhee says they’ve always been interested in exploring composers’ ‘fresh take’ on the string quartet; their 2020 debut album To Be Loved featured some of the earliest music that Beethoven, Unsuk Chin, and Frank Bridge had composed for this configuration. Now, as they present a young Mendelssohn’s string quartet, they are taken aback by the ‘range of emotions and the refinement of his craft’, according to Dimitri.  

Langsamer Satz is also ‘youthful in its romanticism’; Webern was in his early 20s when he wrote it, two decades before he would start incorporating the new 12-tone technique in his works. Dimitri speculates: ‘Perhaps this program brings out different sides of being young – sometimes being bold, energised, but also at times unsure and trying to find yourself, like Webern was.’ 

In addition to the Webern and Mendelssohn, the group performs the String Quartet in G minor by a 31-year-old Debussy (the only piece he completed in this form), and Spiral Sequences from composer Jack Frerer, who was born in 1995.  

Jack, who grew up in Sydney, says he’s ‘most excited about having a work featured by an Australian organisation – something that’s not a common occurrence for me’. 

Jack travelled to the United States close to a decade ago, pursuing a career that would see his music performed by the New York City Ballet among many American orchestras. With his work programmed in Esmé’s tour, Jack says ‘it’s incredible to me that my music is now finding its way back home to Australia’. 

As Jack explains, Spirals Sequences focuses on ‘a chord progression that follows a specific pattern – one that eventually circles back to where it started’. But these patterns don’t always reach the destination you might expect.  

‘Just as you’re getting into some sort of predictable pattern, the music takes a hard left. I really love that feeling as a listener,’ he says. 

Jack says Mendelssohn is a particularly noticeable influence in his music, which is based on ‘traditional Western classical idioms’. Yet Spiral Sequences is also scattered and chaotic, representing the bustling modern-day life of its composer. 

‘This piece evokes the feeling of a big city for me: patterns of streets and buildings, jarring juxtapositions, surprises around every corner.’ 

Though he composed it for some string-playing friends in New York (one of whom lived on the same floor of his Juilliard dormitory), Jack has been looking forward to Esmé’s take on his technically challenging work. 

‘I feel a lot of excitement, and a great deal of trust in their work and artistry,’ Jack says. 

‘This group can truly play anything, though. They always find that balance between virtuosity and emotionality, which is a balance I was striving for in this piece.’  

It’s a piece worthy of Esmé’s momentous Australian debut spanning eight cities.  

‘We are particularly grateful to Musica Viva Australia for organising this tour,’ Wonhee says.  

‘Organisations dedicated to presenting chamber music are rare and precious in this world.’ 


Esmé Quartet tours to Perth, Adelaide, Sydney, Newcastle, Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne from April 29.