University of Melbourne Magazine

Perfect pitch

  • Violinist Dr Helen Ayres (DMusArts 2006) and pianist and author Dr Anna Goldsworthy (DMusArts 2004) have been friends since their final year of high school, and colleagues in the acclaimed Seraphim Trio (alongside cellist Tim Nankervis) for more than 20 years.

    For the past 18 months, Ayres has been living in London, and travels back to Australia regularly to perform alongside her musical partners. They spoke to Erin Munro (BA 2006).

    Helen Ayres (left) and Anna Goldsworthy (right) with their Tim Nankervis (centre), better known as the Seraphim Trio. Picture: Wolfgang Schmidt.

    Helen Ayres (left) and Anna Goldsworthy (right) with Tim Nankervis (centre), better known as the Seraphim Trio. Picture: Wolfgang Schmidt.


    I was eight when I started learning violin, which was relatively late. I grew up playing the Suzuki method in Adelaide. I can remember the benefits of the method were that we had private lessons but, more importantly, we also had group lessons every week, which for me didn’t feel like lessons; it felt like I was getting together with my friends.

    I met Anna when we both won the Don Maynard prize for music in year 12, and when I met her my whole world opened up, because she really is the most generous person that I’ve ever known.

    We immediately decided that we would like to play together. The opportunity came up to form a piano trio and go to the Barossa International Music Festival. That was the first experience of the really immersive, intense life of chamber music.

    Anna completed a doctorate of musical arts when I had a full-time job in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and I attended the recitals that were part of her degree. She said that the doctorate had been wonderfully beneficial so I started one myself several years later. We never studied at the University together but we were physically there all the time, having lessons from William Hennessy, who was then Head of Strings, and rehearsing there all the time together.

    I moved to London 18 months ago, and since I’ve been here I’ve been performing with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and also the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra up in Glasgow. I’ve been really lucky.

    I’ve come back to Australia five times, for periods of between three and four weeks. We’ve presented concerts that concentrate on a repertoire that we already know quite well.

    On stage, we have to be strong together. It’s important that we support each other by being individually strong and not seeking strength from the other person. I think that’s a good philosophy to carry through in any relationship actually; to know what the right balance is between seeking some support, but also remaining individually strong so that you can support your friend or colleague.

    Chamber music has always been the place where I can express myself the most. On stage, there’s a sense of communication between audience and performer, which is so deep. It crosses centuries. Yet at the same time it’s so fleeting, because it only lasts as long as the performance.

    I’ll probably be returning to Australia by next year, and I’m happy to say that I’m going to settle with my family in Adelaide, which is where Anna has settled. So it feels like we’ve come full circle and the next stage of our lives is going to be just really wonderful, I think.


    What Helen probably didn’t mention was she also played the piano at a very high level, and I’d met her over the course of high school. We’d been competing in the same piano eisteddfods. After year 12, we shared the prize for the top music student in the state, and pretty much we became friends from that moment. When we were about 19, we took part in a summer school called Summer Academy, which was actually held at Melbourne University. That was revelatory and introduced us to the absolute joy of chamber music-making at a high level.

    Then, when we came back to Adelaide, we started a trio with another girl who’d been there, Leah Jennings, and eventually set up our trio as Seraphim. Leah only stayed in the trio for a couple of years, and then we got Tim. Tim’s been with us since 1998.

    I did my doctorate at the University under the supervision of Ronald Farren-Price. I ended up moving into Janet Clarke Hall while I was a student, and that was also a really transformative and terrific experience for me. My eldest son was born when I was living there. It was a really enriching time in my life.

    I think my friendship with Helen has deepened and become richer and richer with every year. We’ve been there for each other alongside more or less every milestone of our adult lives.

    Beyond that there’s the particular pressures of performing at a high level, and the ways in which we’ve had to support each other through that. I really appreciate Helen’s loyalty. I also appreciate her vitality, her positivity, her constant desire to learn.

    When I first met Helen I was still torn, trying to work out my vocation. Is it music? Is it literature? And then I got to a stage where I realised I couldn’t not do one; I had no choice but to do them both.

    I love the lessons that you can learn from ensemble or from playing chamber music because they can be applied more generally in life. They’re lessons of compromise, of where you’re an individual but also part of a team. They’re very much about listening, really deep listening to someone else’s intention and supporting that. And then it’s about stepping into the limelight and having your fair say.

    With the trio, the three of us have been living in different cities for quite a few years now. Before Helen moved to the UK, she was in Melbourne, I was in Adelaide and Tim was in Sydney. So already we’d worked out a way of dealing with the long distance nature of the relationship. Artistically, musically, I feel we’ve actually been playing better than we ever have. But, personally, I’ve just missed having Helen around.

    I can’t wait for her to move back to Adelaide. My little dream is that her children might end up at the same school as my boys.