If you have attended one of the National Gallery of Victoria’s popular ‘Friday Nights at the NGV’ series lately, you might have enjoyed the music of the string quartet playing during the after-hours visit program, before the contemporary pop artists that serve as main attractions. If you haven’t, you still have a chance to do so, as the Van Gogh exhibition, one of the cultural highlights of the season has extented its run until Wednesday 12 July – which means that there’s still one more ‘Friday Night’ opportunity (Friday 7 July featuring Steve Gunn), and a special ‘Saturday Night’ event the next night featuring The Panics. Each event starts with the Alto Strings ensemble; they unfold their beautiful sonic wallpaper, performing everything from Mozart to Adele and Ed Sheeran.
The group’s leader, Sophia Kesoglidis, is very happy to be part of this series.
“We’d been asked to play at the ‘Friday Nights’ and when we turned up, I had no idea what it was going to be like,” she says, describing these “amazing entertainment evenings, where people can relax and enjoy a Friday night in Melbourne. What the NGV is trying to do is reach younger people and a different audience, who may have an understanding of the art gallery as being this really formal and highbrow and elite place. By having this Friday night event, they allow people to enjoy the arts without feeling like they have to have a degree in art history to understand what they’re looking at. And I think it’s worked amazingly well.”
But how does she feel, as a classically trained musician who’s been regularly working with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, having to be part of the atmosphere, playing pop tunes?
“I feel great!” she answers. “When we’re booked for a reception, or for an event like NGV we’re booked to bring people together. To fill the space, for instance when people aren’t talking. Music has the power to do it, to unite people that way.”
This is what she has been doing with Alto Strings for more than two decades, playing at functions and weddings. It’s an experience that she values, having played alongside artists such as Katy Perry, Harry Connick Jnr, KD Lang, Hugh Jackman, Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Roberta Flack and Air Supply and getting the opportunity to perform for private functions, for people like the former US Vice President Joe Biden, who came to Melbourne to open the new Cancer Centre at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, or mining magnate Gina Reinhardt, who asked to hear I Still Call Australia Home, “which shows that music even if people are wealthy or who knows what, they still have some sort of music that means something to them,” says the viola player, stating the most important thing she has learned through her experience: “There’s nothing like playing music that means something to the people you’re playing to. It might be the song that was playing when they first met, or when they gave their first kiss; it’s my job to play the music that reaches that person.”.
This started off when she was just 16 years old and asked to perform at a Christmas function with a friend of hers.
“We did a violin and viola duet and we were very bad, because we were inexperienced,” she remembers.
“However, we did get a $100 tip, which is still the largest tip I’ve got,” she laughs.
“We understood how much people love to hear live music; it was amazing to make music with your friends, bring joy to people and be paid for it. We played our first wedding a while later.”
Then, in 1996, she officially set up Alto Strings as a professional ensemble, which advertised by busking on Little Bourke St, where Myer used to be.
“What I learned from busking is that people are pretty similar,” she remembers.
“Up until then I’d only been in practice rooms and concert venues. But when you play in the street, you reach all sorts of people, from homeless, to students, to travellers and tourists to people on a lunch break from their offices; everyone is welcome and you can see that music is a unifying power, it softens people.”
Many classically trained musicians work in such settings, but there’s something particular about Sophie Kesoglidis’ enthusiasm and work ethic, which she attributes to her Greek background.
“I grew up in a mixed family: my Dad is Greek and my Mum is Australian,” she says.
“So I witnessed the typical migrant experience of coming to a new country and working hard, as many Greeks did. Perhaps this unrelenting approach to work gave me a glimpse of what it would take to pursue the arts as a career. I could see the tenacity in my father and the amount of focus to pursue one’s goal. I have learnt a lot from that work ethic. I hated it at the time, but I am so glad I went to Greek school.”
The latter has been useful in various occasions: “I even got to play with Mihalis Hatzigiannis when he sang with MSO in 2014,” she remembers. “I was the only one on stage who could understand the lyrics! All those years of going to Greek school paid off for that moment.”
A few years before, she had the chance to accompany another great Greek artist, Leonidas Kavakos, hailed as one of the most important classical violinists of our times.
“He came to Hobart when I was playing with [the] Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra. My viola teacher had instructed me to take the Mozart violin-viola duets with me and ask him to play. So I went up to him and introduced myself in Greek and asked him to play. And he said: ‘Sure, come to my hotel tomorrow afternoon.’ We played together, and then we had lunch, it was the most amazing experience to speak about classical music with someone from Greece. When I went back to my teacher, his mouth fell off; he was just joking, he’d never thought this might actually happen.”
It is this go-getter attitude that sent her to Los Angeles to pursue a Master’s of Producing at the American Film Institute.
“This is the school where students such as Patty Jenkins (director of the recent Wonder Woman film) and David Lynch (Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive) learnt their filmmaking craft”, she says.
“It was an honour to study at an institution, where James L Brooks, the executive producer of The Simpsons, is the head of the school. While there I produced a short film called Emergency Preparedness shot on the Seinfeld set at CBS Radford. An incredible opportunity. Essentially I love the arts, so as long as I’m being creative, with my viola or a video camera, I’m happy.”
* To book a ticket for the next Friday Night at the NGV event, go to ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/programs-events/?type=fridaynights
* Find out more about Alto Strings on their website: altoproductions.com.au