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The Villiers Quartet and Oxford University take on the classical diversity deficit

The University of Oxford has been working on a major project, ‘Diversity and the British String Quartet’, to explore the issues around inclusivity, access and identity in classical music in Britain

A team led by the University’s Music Faculty’s Dr Joanna Bullivant and Professor Samantha Dieckmann has been working in collaboration with The Villiers Quartet (), the Quartet-in-Residence at the Jacqueline Du Pre Music Building at St Hilda’s College.

The project is supported by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) and includes research, educational work with 14-18-year-olds and the commissioning of new works from five contemporary British composers: Florence Anna Maunders, Philip Herbert, Robert Fokkens, Alex Ho and Jasmin Kent Rodgman. These have been commissioned to write new ‘From Home’ quartets, exploring the experience of writing music for classical instruments in the current historical period.

The new works have been written specifically for the Villiers Quartet, and will be given their world premieres in a series of streamed concerts as part of a digital symposium.

Hailed as ‘Champions of British music’ by The Observer, The Villiers Quartet is as involved in teaching about this country’s chamber music as it is in performing it. The quartet’s work on ‘Diversity and the British String Quartet’ has highlighted the work and stories of British Composers who have been largely ignored within chamber music programmes. The members of the quartet, Katie Stillman, violin I; Tamaki Higashi, violin II; Carmen Flores, viola; Leo Melvin, cello, have worked with Dr Bullivant and Professor Dieckmann to explore what they call the ‘difficult truths’ around why these talented composers have been ‘overlooked’. By focussing on the string quartet, the team has aimed to expose the wider issues of diversity following criticism of the Last Night of the Proms and the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests.

The symposium is the culmination of many months of work and will offer the public access to the results, including a series of talks, workshops and additional performances from an array of lesser-known British quartets performing pieces written by students as part of the project.

Speakers will come from academia and the music industry, including Laura Tunbridge, Des Oliver, Kadiatu Kanneh-Mason, Roz De Vile, Nate Holder, Leah Broad, Amanda Harris, Florian Scheding and Paul Watt. They will discuss a range of contemporary and historical issues around the British string quartet.

Funding for the project has also come from Arts Council England, the RVW Trust, The David Willets Fund for Teaching Innovation and supporters of the Villiers Quartet’s ‘From Home’ Commissions Fund.