Lisa Stewart has travelled the world playing the violin, but now her home is in Orange. And she loves it.
“We moved here first day of February. We came to say hello and everyone was so friendly.”
Lisa began the violin early age and by the time she was 11 she was already performing internationally and winning competitions.
An ABC Young Performers scholarship took her to study in Germany in 1988 and over the next decade she performed as a soloist with orchestras across Europe, was guest concertmaster of the London Philharmonic, lead the Cologne Chamber Orchestra and was a member of the Beethoven Orchestra in Bonn.
Then, in 2001, she made the decision to return to Australia with her German partner, viola-player Stefan Duwe.
“We used to say we could stay in Germany for the money, go to London for the high-flying career, or go back to Australia for the lifestyle. The lifestyle won.”
Lisa now spends much of her time touring with her own ensemble, the Acacia Quartet. It’s a long way from the big cities and bright lights of Europe, but she doesn’t care.
“We recently played a place called Womboota and it was so special. Dirt roads, 11 houses. We had 35-45 people come, which is more people than live there … I just feel really lucky to play all the music we do.”
Playing chamber music is, for many musicians, the pinnacle of a career in music.
“When I was really young and started playing, I was fortunate enough to learn from Hiroko Primrose. Her husband William Primrose was an amazing violist and lived in Strasbourg in the early 1970s. I remember listening to all their chamber concerts. He and Chris Kimber or the Tokyo String Quartet would be playing quartets and I thought, ‘imagine playing that music. I wonder if I’ll ever get to do that?”
Now, as leader of the Acacia Quartet, Lisa not only plays the music of the great composers such as Beethoven and Schumann, but also works with living composers, commissioning and collaborating in new work. It’s deeply fulfilling but not, she admits, the easy option.
While orchestral musicians have a regular salary and paid leave, most chamber musicians must take the precarious path of freelancing. All four members of the Acacia Quartet choose to live outside Sydney, partly for the lifestyle, but also because of high rents in the city. Then there is the constant travelling, and the pressure of performing in the spotlight.
The Acacia Quartet is resident at the Orange Conservatorium of Music and, when she’s not touring, Lisa gives lessons to individuals and groups of all ages. And besides music, Lisa is an accomplished artist who trained at the National Art School. The whimsical drawings with which she entertained her colleagues through long rehearsals have now become another part of her career, as an illustrator in demand for children’s books.
“I find the illustrating just makes me calm. I needed another emotional outlet and I think I needed a challenge, too.”
In spite of the challenges, Lisa has embraced life in a string quartet.
“People say that a quartet is like a marriage, but I think it’s like a family.
“I grew up with my mum, a single mum, and I ended up my lessons being paid for by other people. You don’t forget that. I have a violin that’s donated to me. Maybe that helps too. Maybe that helps when you know that you’ve got people supporting you, rather than having to give up because you have a parent who just can’t afford it.
“You just have to be brave and bold and work hard and love it. I feel lucky. Very, very lucky.”
The Acacia Quartet performs at Riverside Theatres, September 22.