Described by her mentor, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, as having “fire in her belly and a spirit of enterprise”, the CV of Madeleine Easton (violin 2000) reads like a wish list for any aspiring musician. Currently based in London, she performs regularly throughout Europe as a soloist, concertmaster and director of some of the world’s most respected ensembles and orchestras, but after 18 years abroad, she’s heading home to Australia to concentrate on the two great loves of her life: her new husband Daniel Gregory and JS Bach.
Born into a musical family, Madeleine’s musical life started at an early age with piano lessons given by her father; in fact she might easily have become a pianist if fate hadn’t intervened in the form of a Suzuki violin group at her local primary school. It turned out to be a good fit, and although she continued with piano throughout high school, even segueing into classical guitar along the way, it became clear that violin would become "her instrument."
To describe the Easton family as musical is an exercise in understatement. Madeleine describes her father (the late James Easton) as “a brilliant composer, arranger and pianist” who lectured at the Sydney Conservatorium in harmony and renaissance history. His celebrated pupils include Phillip Shovk, Paul Dyer and Mark Fitzpatrick. A musical polymath, Madeleine says he knew every style of music and “could improvise jazz as well as he could improvise a four-part Bach fugue." Keen to pass on his broad musical knowledge to his children, the family’s nightly dinnertime ritual usually involved a music quiz where he’d play a piece of music, after which everyone would compete with one another to nominate the composer, the key and when it was written. It was not always classical either. Music by Queen, Michael Jackson and the Beatles featured regularly. Madeleine says this was great musical training that enabled her to develop perfect pitch and says she owes her father a great deal, as he “taught me how to listen to music… being a harmony professor he was constantly drawing my ears to the bass line, the inner harmony, phrase lengths, instrumentation, structure and so much more.” Sadly, James passed away from motor neurone disease when Madeleine was 22 - a huge loss to the Australian musical world and, of course, to his family. Madeleine wishes she could “share my musical and personal life with him now as I’m sure I had so much more I could have learnt from him.”
Madeleine’s parents met while studying at the conservatorium, after which her mother taught music, art and history in schools all over Sydney. A fine pianist, clarinettist and trumpeter, she has moved more recently into the art and theatre world.
With two musical siblings, Madeleine suspects that choice played a very small role in career paths, as the Easton children were “very much steered in that direction.” Both she and her sister attended the Sydney Conservatorium of Music high school and went on to gain Bachelor of Music degrees from the Sydney Con. Her sister is now a violinist in the Opera Australia Orchestra and while her brother Edward is not a professional musician, he is an accomplished cellist and plays regularly for enjoyment.
Madeleine’s early teachers at Lane Cove Primary School inspired not just a love of violin, but also a broader range of music that included Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Beethoven’s symphonies and Bach masses. The school boasted a full symphony orchestra, thanks to an inspired grade five teacher, the late Ian Evans, who not only championed the development of the music department, but was also able to arrange “the great pieces of music” for the instruments available at the school, thus enabling his young charges to experience the wonders of classical music. “Ian also wrote and directed some amazing musicals at the school which we will never forget performing in… these musicals were so good that they have since been taken up by professional companies and are being performed around Sydney now. A great legacy to Ian.”
Later, Madeleine cites Chris Kimber, her violin teacher at the Sydney Con, as giving her “such a solid grounding in violin technique,” and says he taught her “how to create my sound”. She has since realised how rare it is to have had a teacher “who just cared so much about his students, and was able to bring out the very best in each and every one of us.”
By age 15, Madeleine knew music would be her career. Prior to that she had been “very serious” about ballet and keen to try for a place the Australian Ballet School, but that early dream was derailed by illness and injury, and violin became her main focus.
Joining ANAM was “utterly brilliant” for Madeleine, who was in transition between the Sydney Conservatorium and the Royal College of Music in London, where she was enrolled in the post-graduate diploma course. With a sizeable gap between the two academic years, ANAM provided the means “to practice extremely hard, and also gave me incredible opportunities to learn from the visiting professors.” Highlights for her included meeting “some amazing musicians such as Maurice Hasson, Eric Gruenberg, Pinchas Zuckerman, the Takács Quartet, the Goldner Quartet and Elizabeth Wallfisch”. She says that being at ANAM gave musicians the chance “to focus purely on our instrument and learn as much as possible from these wonderful musicians before going out into the world and profession.”
While now enjoying considerable success, Madeleine is quick to acknowledge the challenges she faced on the journey. Like many young antipodean musicians, she regards her biggest hurdle as relocating to the other side of the world “pretty much without a bean and not knowing a single soul over there”. Nevertheless, she clearly made the most of her post-graduate years at the Royal College of Music, going on to forge a freelance career and “making the most of the contacts and opportunities as they came along.”
With many highlights along the way, she finds it hard to pick a winner between performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Valery Gergiev, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Simon Rattle, or performing Bach’s St Mathew Passion in the Thomaskirche (Bach’s own church in Leipzig) with Sir John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir while looking down at Bach’s grave in the church… it’s a contest any musician would envy.
By contrast, all musicians experience lows and for Madeleine, surviving financially in an expensive city such as London has been an ongoing challenge. “Unless you make it as a soloist, or devote your life to doing film sessions full time, you cannot expect to earn more than a starting salary for a basic IT professional” although she is quick to add that “it is never about the money… the minute it becomes about money, you should do something else!” Constant touring also makes it difficult to maintain a routine and a home life, and can be lonely if you don’t have a partner who can travel with you, although she says there are lots of examples of musicians “who manage it, and very successfully too.”
Asked what advice she would give her 20-year-old self, and to the current crop of ANAM musicians, she is unequivocal: “Just believe in yourself more. You have the skills, you always did. Stay positive, be on time, practice even more and roll with the punches!”.
With her own path as a musician being “completely different” from the one she envisaged whilst at ANAM, and a whole new phase of her career on the horizon, Madeleine has some valuable insights. She reflects that the dreams you have at 20 may not end up being your reality in 20 years’ time, but adds that “whatever path you end up on will be the right one. It will reflect who you are, your individual talents and skills… so be at peace, and be incredibly proud of what you’ve achieved so far and what you will in the future. Being a professional musician is one of the maddest, hardest, bonkers career paths you can take but you’ll have a more genuine, satisfying and meaningful professional life than most other people could ever dream of.”
Now in the midst of relocating back to Australia in January to devote her time and energy to her newly formed Bach Akademie Australia, she is on the brink of seeing the idea she had three years ago becoming a reality. She looks forward to nurturing and growing the ensemble into “a formidable force on the Australian (and hopefully international) music scene in the coming decades... taking all the experience and knowledge I’ve garnered over the last 18 years in Europe and bringing it back home to enrich the musical life of my own country.”
The impact of that 18 years can’t be underestimated and in spite of her success, Madeleine remains humble to the point that she seems almost in awe of it herself: “I never thought I’d be the artistic director of my own Bach ensemble whose patron was Sir John Eliot Gardiner. I never thought I’d have been mentored by him and be a member of the English Baroque Soloists and the Orchestrre Révolutionaire et Romantique. I never thought I would have been guest concertmaster of all the wonderful orchestras I have led. None of this I could have known whilst at ANAM, but the practice and training I did and received there were invaluable.”
One last question remains to be answered as, like all musicians, Madeleine has a secret “what if” regarding her choice of instrument. While many woodwind and brass players harbour a secret desire for the cello, this string player “would definitely have chosen the oboe… I was absolutely fascinated with that instrument from a very young age, probably because of all the amazing oboe music Tchaikovsky writes in his ballet scores. I begged and begged to be able to take oboe lessons but to no avail… the violin “isn’t such a bad choice though!”