20 years of Nexas Quartet

 

20 years is definitely enough time to create a vast array of experiences and stories. Here are some fun tales of Nexas Quartet’s first 20 years featuring Ben Carey, Andrew Smith, Nathan Henshaw, Jay Byrnes, Nick Russoniello and Michael Duke. 

In 2002, four budding young saxophone students of the Sydney Conservatorium walked into a practice room under the request of then Head of Woodwind Mark Walton. There was some tension in the room, 2 of the students had been recent graduates of the Sydney Conservatorium High School and the other 2 from Newtown performing arts High School. These two schools were at the time considered two of the greatest music high schools in the state and had educated some of the finest musicians that New South Wales had ever heard, but also had an unwritten and unspoken rivalry. These four saxophonists had shared teachers from school and had stood nervously together in the hallways of the Conservatorium for their AMEB exams. To say there was some hesitation and strain is an understatement. 

Surrounded by saxophones (as who was to play what saxophone had yet been decided) they pulled up the Jean-Jean Quatuor which had been chosen for them. A tuning note was played and then the sight reading began. Within moments, all animosity was out the proverbial window (these rooms don’t have any natural light let alone windows.) The four guys had all realized almost instantaneously that this was going to be an exciting and fun project. 

Within a short few months David Miller, Chair of Chamber Music had seen great promise in the quartet and began to provide them with opportunities to perform not only in the Conservatorium setting but in regional areas of NSW. A friendship that would prove to last the test of time formed between the four of them and an unstoppable energy to make music together developed, to the point where the quartet had become the highest priority for each of them. 

A name was chosen, how? With very little deliberation. A flick through a dictionary and the discovery of the word Nexus was made. A link, a connection. This made perfect sense for the four. They had all come to that first rehearsal as very different people and the hours spent both in the practice room and at the local pub later, had created a bond between the four that was inseparable. As 19 year old’s, a play on words was seen as witty and clever. The spelling was changed to Nexas to reference the famous Xenakis work XAS which would not be approached by the quartet for a further 15 years. 

Some time later, but within that first year, Claude Delangle, Professor of Saxophone from the Paris Conservatoire came to Sydney to give classes. The quartet were nervous as hell to perform for the maestro, but knew that his knowledge and wisdom would strengthen them and lead them into a new and inspired direction. Some major lessons were learnt in the short time, including the positioning of each member into fixed roles and saxophones. 

2 years into the existence of Nexas, a performance opportunity west of the Blue Mountains presented itself. The quartet jumped at a chance for a road-trip and headed west from Sydney CBD in one of the members mother’s cars. Jokes and silliness prevailed, at one point the temperature must have been below 5 degrees, so Jay who was driving at the time wound down the windows in the back and locked them, so the two innocent members began to freeze. When the complaints began the windows were put up and the air con turned to 40 degrees until they were all sweating profusely. This banter went on until they found themselves a little lost. A time before google maps and sat nav existed, the quartet used paper maps and the street directory which were sprawled out around the car and handballed around, all trying to avoid the necessary responsibility. The directions seemed to point to a dirt track, but that road disappeared a short distance along on all the maps. Nexas ventured bravely and followed the road for what seemed an eternity. They were late and slightly panicked at arriving at this amazing opportunity too late to actually perform. The jokes had stopped, and the panic had started. Driving probably a little faster than would be advised they all saw a crest appear and thought very little of it, that was until at the peak of the crest the most stunning landscape could be seen from the cliff edge that had appeared as a result of the road veering off to the right. With some inherent skill and sheer luck Jay turned the car sharp right and managed to save what seemed like certain doom. The gig went well, even with the quartet’s adrenaline steamingly high. Only when they very slowly drove back down the dirt road heading home did they realise how close they had come to the end. The tyre marks were clear and only 3 of them could be seen near the edge drawing deep lines in the dirt at a sharp right angle. 

It definitely wasn’t the end of road trips for the group and every time they drove towards a crest in the future, there was always a joke or some banter made to release tension that was all under the skin of the boys. 

Gap France, a summer school in Europe was the next adventure, for some of the boys their first time overseas without family. They found themselves landing in Vietnam on Vietnamese airlines (cheapest flight, for a reason) for their stop over. As the boys walked out of the gangway into the airport an official looking man in a suit was standing at the gate with a sign saying ‘Henshaw, Carey, Smith, Byrnes’. How exciting! The quartet assumed that they had a limousine waiting for them, or at least some glorified transport. In fact an oversight in their travel preparations was the reason. No Visa! They were taken to a room where their passports were replaced with a pink piece of paper. Advised to hold onto the pink paper and not let it out of their sight. They would receive their passports when they returned to the airport in three days. That’s right, three days. They had failed to see the length of their stop over and now had an unplanned 72hrs in Hoe Chi Minh City. On arrival at the hotel the clerk asked for their passports, which was impossible. With sweat on their brows, unknown whether from the stress or the 100 percent humidity the quartet explained the story. ‘That’s no problem’ announced the clerk, stating this often happens and that all they had to do was hand over the pink form, the precious pink form they were told to hold on to. 30 minutes later walking down the bustling streets of old Saigon without a passport, the essential pink form or any ID to speak of the quartet were famished. Stumbling into the closest restaurant they simply ordered one of everything on the menu. A feast that would make any adventurous foodie quiver. 

Returning to the airport after several unpredictable experiences in Vietnam the quartet were confronted with a packed terminal and one small Vietnamese man who perhaps had just completed high school walking round with a pile of passports from waist to shoulder calling out names. 

The Summer School in France was a life changing event for the quartet with classes from 8 of the worlds best saxophone players and working side by side with Diastema Quartet and members of the Habanera Quartet. They were given the opportunity to perform many concerts with their Australian program, featuring works by Paul Stanhope, Margery Smith and Stuart Greenbaum. Most importantly they left the event with a list of works to challenge the group, and a friend network that now covered the globe. 

As musicians the members of the quartet were always searching for experiences and opportunities to improve themselves, change was a foot and as Jay completed his bachelor’s degree one year before the others, he was the first to venture overseas. Being part of such an amazing class at the Conservatorium, that was community inspiring and produced some of the finest saxophonists in the history of the class enabled an easy transition for good friend Nick Russoniello to step in and become a member of the group. Over the next 5 years various members of the quartet would travel and study abroad, however there were always four of the team in Sydney to perform and extend the experience of the ensemble. 

In preparation for an upcoming performance, Nexas undertook one of their intensive rehearsal days, a 6 hour long session to prepare not only the notes and rhythms but the deep meaning of the works. The longer rehearsals always enabled a thorough undertaking of not just rehearsal elements but also discussion into the music and their group interpretation. Of course, these times were always filled with jokes, stories and antics that can only be expected from 4 true friends. On this occasion, the rehearsal was held in Nick’s soundproof practice and teaching studio. A garage converted into a fantastic space where the quartet could play without concern of interrupting any neighbours. 4 hours into the session and it was time for some fresh air. To Jay’s horror (suffering from an often-crippling claustrophobia) the door jammed, in shear panic he wrenched the door with all his might and felt the hand pull towards him. Glee ensued until he realized that only the handle had pulled towards him, still dangling in his hand as the door remained jammed shut, now with no way of budging it. Calls to friends and family were made to no avail. It seemed on this day everyone had decided to put their phones on silent. An attempt to continue the rehearsal while waiting was pointless as Jay felt the walls slowly closing in. The final decision was made to make an emergency call, some 20 minutes later the 4 boys walked sheepishly out of the small room covered in sweat while 5 firemen watched in curiosity trying to understand what four adult men were doing in a soundproof room. 

There is always one sports fanatic in a group and it wasn’t long until this impacted Nexas. Andrew is an avid sportsman, always supporting his beloved Bulldogs with his Blue and White jacket, updating the others on the successes and trials of the Australian cricket team, and involving himself in local sports. The musicians indoor cricket team was formed and the obvious choice to captain the team was Smiddy! Unfortunately, early in the season a fast-flying ball smashed his wrist and halted the next few weeks of rehearsals and performances. Smiddy did power through and performed to his amazing capacity on a western tour with the quartet for the Sydney Conservatorium, the only issue being realized when he had to focus on his pain and couldn’t present at an infamous concert in Bathurst. Jay decided to introduce the works at this concert and managed to get the entire audience to erupt in embarrassed laughter with the slip of the tongue. 

Sometimes difficult decisions must be made, and people need to follow their hearts and ambitions. Benny had been a member of Nexas for 10 years, a founding member and a dear friend. The original quartet, now all back in Australia were keen to go bigger and better, to really build a platform for the group and to perform as much as possible. For Benny, this was a tough decision as he had begun to gain a huge reputation and passion for composition. We sat, each with a pint in front of us as Benny announced that he needed to follow his dreams. Since then he has become a world leader in his form of composition and is a well respected and loved Lecturer in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium. We miss Benny greatly in rehearsals, his musicality and skill, but are so happy for him that he had the courage to take that leap.  One choice for the quartet would have been to ask Nick to return to the group, however at this time Nick was very active playing in another quartet as well as building his solo career. Nexas, well the 3 that remained, decided they would approach Michael Duke, he is a phenomenal player and had become a close friend of the guys. If he wasn’t interested Nexas would close shop. To the great relief of the boys Michael was in! 

A new member, a new energy, and a thriving desire to perform more and more led to a fresh start for the group. Michael fitted in straight away and after one rehearsal of swapping saxophones the choice for Michael to play soprano and the others to remain in their roles was the obvious one. Friday afternoons were reserved for quartet, a three-hour rehearsal followed by end of week drinks became the model and the boys not only grew as a quartet but became even closer buddies. Concert opportunities opened up and soon Nexas was performing more than it ever had, at festivals around Australia, at major venues and recording cds. 

As teachers the boys had a huge group of young and not so young students that were eager to see them play. Nexas decided that they should begin their own concert series, a chance to play for their friends, family and students and to build a larger audience following, but to also program some themed concerts that they felt passionate about. Collaborations became a big part of this series and over the 5 years that it ran they performed with dozens of guest artists including Frank Celata, Mark Robinson, Gerard Willems, Matt Dempsey, Nickey Crayson, and David Theak. There were however, 2 different programs and collaborations that would later go on to shape several years of performances and recordings. 

Tango de Saxos originated in the Concert Series, originally starting out with Michael Kluger on accordion and Daniel Rojas on Piano. Stephen Cuttriss would soon come in on bandoneon and this adventure led to the recording of Nexas most recent album. 

Nathan had a saxophone student whose parents just happened to be famous Australian Opera Singers. Peter Coleman-Wright and Cheryl Barker. Peter had attended many of our concerts and an idea of a collaboration came about. The group performed alongside Peter at one their concert series performances and later recorded an album for ABC. The project, titled ‘Composers in Exile’ has led to amazing performances throughout Australia and also a number of in jokes and antics. Pronunciation classes with Peter were always a riot, simply ask Nathan and Andrew how to pronounce some of their German speeches and eyes will water, or Jay to say Dance Bands to a large audience. 

Making friends both in Australia and around the globe has been a joy for the quartet and sometimes these friendships end up bringing opportunity. Guy Ross had been a dear friend of Nexas for many years and when he needed a chamber group to perform at Uluru, Nexas jumped at the chance. The theme of the performance was around Opera music, so Nexas created the infamous ‘gig book’, an enormous book that weighs about 5kgs with hundreds of pieces including many opera classics (thank god for ipads these days). Arriving in Uluru, priority 1 was to check in to our rooms and unpack the performance clothes for the nights gig. Michael Duke, looking paler than normal (and that’s saying something) walked up to the boys and simply said ‘We have a problem’. Michael had packed everything, well almost everything, he had packed all you could ever need for trip to Uluru except his performance pants. That’s right they were 500kms away from the nearest town and Michael had forgotten his trousers. They contemplated doing the performance in shorts, or swimmers, or sarongs, but none of those seemed appropriate for a performance of Opera Classics. In true Nexas fortune, Michael found a sale bin filled with women’s black slacks at the IGA within the Uluru hotel resort. What were the chances, and whilst to get the length right the waist line was rather substantive, Michael managed to make the slacks work with safety pins, paper clips, pegs and a strong belt. 

While this is by no means a comprehensive list of the adventures of Nexas, I hope that it gives you some insight to the joys, laughs, and great times I have had over the past 20 years working and playing with my best friends. Many people ask what the magic formula is to have the longevity we are fortunate to have had. There is no one answer, but working alongside people that you love to hang out with definitely makes it easier. While the concept of 20 more years of work is daunting, I trust that itll be great fun alongside these guys. 

Thanks for reading.

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