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Husband-and-wife music duo return to Canberra

Fortepianist Marie Searles and violinist John Ma. Photo: Graham McDonald.

AFTER nearly 17 years performing in Europe, two former ANU students, now a husband-and-wife duo, have returned to live and work in Canberra.

In November, music reviewer Graham McDonald alerted me to the work of Marie Searles, who plays piano, fortepiano and harpsichord and John Ma, who plays violin and viola d’amore.

When I catch up with them for coffee in Aranda, I learn that they first met as students more than 20 years ago and now, back in town with two children, they find themselves attached to the ANU and being asked to perform with all the major early music ensembles across Australia.

Late last year, after a number of what they called “unlabelled” concerts, they formed their own Ensemble, Apeiron Baroque, named after a Greek word normally meaning “infinite” but also equated with evenness, plurality, motion and even their apparent opposite, badness.

Their idea is to present high-quality concerts in an accessible atmosphere, train a local pool of interested specialists, present cross-disciplinary concerts involving presentations from non-music experts and become a local ensemble that would attract nationally and later internationally recognised specialists.

“Big visions with a long-time frame,” Ma tells me, “but we plan to be based in Canberra for the rest of our lives.”

With Ma on strings and Searles on keyboard at the core, Apeiron will be augmented with guest artists, dance, poetry and more.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

While Searles, a Canberra girl, has been a musician all along, studying for a degree at the ANU School of Music, Ma comes from a mathematical and scientific family.

He came here from his home town Perth as a National Undergraduate Scholar to study physics, not music, but deserted science as a profession, studying music in Sydney and at the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne, then studying and working the recital circuit with Searles from their base in The Haag, a “pilgrimage” destination  for early music experts, they tell me.

It was a big decision for them to leave the Netherlands, but they don’t regret it. Searles had been wanting to get back to the family for a while then the pandemic made them think seriously.

“I’ve got a big family here, and there are lots of cousins for the kids,” she says, adding, “besides, we don’t like big cities.”

Now Ma is not about to let go of the ancient idea that music and the sciences are intimately related.

His idea for concerts is to bring in people from other fields, so there could be words – poetry, maybe a lawyer talking, or a violin-maker like Canberra’s Hugh Withycombe talking about instruments, or a scientist.

“Sometimes while listening, your mind needs to go to others things,” he says, “one thing needs to inform another, so we’re mixing thing up.”

Their 2023 season begins with “Trios for 4,” where they’ll be joined by Lauren Davis on violin and Clara Teniswood on cello in a performance they hope will be “honest, raw, and passionate”.

Ma is adamant that “a newcomer should not fear the first experience and unspoken etiquettes of a classical concert hall,” so highlights will include a sonata of wild animal sounds by Heinrich Biber from Salzburg, a dance tune from the Scottish lands, and music from a cloistered nun trapped in a time-bubble.

In addition, they say, tongue-in-cheek, there will be music by “lesser-known” composers such as Handel, Telemann, and JS Bach.

Apeiron Baroque, Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest, 5pm, March 25.


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Helen Musa

Helen Musa

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