La Scena Musicale

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

MISQA: Spells Tradition

By John Delva

In its third year, the Montreal International String Quartet Academy (MISQA) unites some of the foremost young string quartets from around the world to hone their skills through the guidance of experienced chamber musicians and concert performances. For its director, André J. Roy, the oral tradition—the sharing of knowledge between teacher and student—is one of the academy’s main focuses. This is not surprising seeing how many who have met the viola teacher highlight his affability. With prestigious faculty that includes Gerard Schultz and Günter Pichler of the Alban Berg Quartet, Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet, Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet, as well as the Endellion String Quartet, participants are not short on mentors. I sat down with Mr. Roy and discussed the attention the academy has received, and how string quartets are similar to the NHL's Los Angeles Kings.

LSM: The MISQA has really taken off since its inception in 2010. How did it come about?

André J. Roy: It's about people coming together. The Cecilia String Quartet called me and asked if I'd consider being their coach. I was in touch with one of our great benefactors here, Constance Pathy, and she helped the Cecilia Quartet join McGill. She was very interested in founding an academy or something of the sort here in Montreal, but there we were in April and the professors I was looking for were booked two or three years in advance—they're big names. I was organizing the academy in May and June to be ready in August. It was absurd! I had a long conversation with Gerhard [Schulz], explaining what we wanted to do with the academy and he saw it as a place to grow and develop the next generation of string quartets. I was very lucky he accepted to do a few days that first year.

MISQA Director, André J. Roy
LSM: The academy's rapid expansion attests to its increasing success over the years. When did you know you had something special?

AJR: So we did the first academy. The Cecilia and I went to the Banff competition and, as if from a movie script, they went on to win first prize. It sparked interest from a lot of people asking, “Who are these guys in Montreal?”

LSM: What does the academy consider when selecting its participants?

AJR: Senior groups must be involved in the international scene, while the junior ones are quartets that will eventually be selected for international competitions.

LSM: And how do you go about choosing professors?

AJR: You know who's out there, then you talk to people a year or two in advance. We have [amongst eight professors] the two violinists from the Alban Berg Quartet and the cellist of the Cleveland Quartet: monumental quartets and musicians. They have all trained quartets who have won international competitions and are extremely devoted to teaching.

LSM: What does a typical workshop look like?

AJR: In the mornings, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., we have private coaching sessions. I always try to have two violinists, a violist and a cellist at least present during that week—if you have someone who has made a career at being a second violinist, they will know everything in the repertoire inside out. Then, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., one of the teachers will give a master class. The rest of the time [participants] practice individually and with their quartet.

LSM: What goals do the MISQA set for its participants? 

AJR: I want them to be in contact with the best practitioners out there. This is very much an oral tradition, which you can link to Beethoven and Shostakovich who have worked with string quartets. I also wanted this program to be in the image of Montreal: We always hear Montreal's a good mix between Europe and North America. I wanted people from Europe to benefit from what we do here and vice versa.

LSM: What kinds of challenges do performers encounter in string quartet writing?

AJR: Look at [the] Los Angeles [Kings] this year: Nobody expected them to do anything because they're a young team, but with a good coach and group synergy, they were able to win the cup. They don't have the best players, but they have an amazing team ethic. Same with string quartets: Each quartet has its own signature sound. There's a lot of giving involved and it's not about your own sound anymore. Your sound has to be part of a collective one, and that's the hardest thing to develop.

LSM: Most people are aware of the big name composers who contributed to the evolution of the string quartet genre, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Do you think there's a composer of string quartets out there who isn't given his or her fair due?

AJR: Thomas Adès is an amazing composer. For the performers, putting it together is a nightmare! Once a quartet embarks on a career, the chamber music series that will offer them an opportunity will want to hear Haydn, Bartók, Shostakovich, and so on. Once in a while they'll accept a modern piece, but not too often. String quartets have a repertoire they can offer during a given season, so if you're to spend half of your time learning a new piece—to be really good and keep being in demand—you have to make sure you'll be able to program it. For me, Adès or Wolfgang Rihm are not played enough, but they will be in the future when quartets have learned their repertoire. Every competition has a living composer write a piece, which is a way of having young quartets learn new music.


The MISQA runs from August 12 to 25.

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Sunday, 12 August 2012

Festival Orford 2012: Kuerti Goes Deeper and Nagano Plays Small Ball

by Paul E. Robinson

Mozart: Piano Sonata No. 8 in a minor K. 310
Beethoven: Sonata No. 21 in C major Op. 53 “Waldstein
Schubert: Sonata No. 21 in B flat major D. 960
Anton Kuerti, piano
Salle Gilles-Lefebre
July 28, 2012

Ravel: Trio in a minor for violin, cello and piano
Poulenc: Le bal masque
Dutilleux: Sonnets de Jean Cassou
Stravinsky: L’Histoire du soldat Suite
François Le Roux, baritone; Olivier Godin, piano; Marianne Dugal, violin; Sylvain Murray, cello; Olga Gross, piano; Members of the OSM
Kent Nagano, conductor
Salle Gilles-Lefebre
August 7, 2012

After more than 60 years of service, the Orford Arts Centre in Eastern Quebec (l’Estrie) has become one of the most venerable arts institutions in Canada. Founded by Gilles Lefebre in 1951, it is still going strong at the same location, tucked into one of the mountain passes on Mont Orford. This area is a magnet for skiers in the winter, and for for hikers, golfers and music lovers from surrounding cottages and the nearby town of Magog in the summer.

Three years ago, after a failed experiment in Knowlton, Quebec, it appeared that Orford would become the summer home of the Orchestre symphonique de Montreal. On the evidence of this year’s programme, however, that dream also appears to have vanished.

Only ten members of the OSM showed up at Orford this summer to take part in a chamber concert. OSM music director Kent Nagano conducted his reduced orchestra in part of one concert and also appeared the next morning leading the student orchestra in a rehearsal. This was a far cry from what was billed three seasons back as “OSM Week at Orford!” So the OSM is apparently doomed to continue its summer wanderings, and Orford, at least to this music lover, appears somewhat diminished by its absence.

I can’t help feeling, in spite of the decent audiences for the two concerts I attended, that the Orford Arts Centre is in the doldrums these days. The place is still a refuge for gifted students, and major artists still put in an appearance from time to time to add lustre to the proceedings, but there is no sense of growth or fresh imaginings here; on the contrary, there is a sense of playing it safe and reducing risk. True, these are admirable qualities in a time of global economic crisis, but surely the programmers could come up with something more inspired than yet another celebration of Debussy, French music and Jacques Hetu.

Although artistic director Jean-François Rivest appears to have run out of both money and ideas, there is nonetheless some fine music-making going on at Orford and it is well worth a trip at least from somewhere close by in the Eastern Townships to hear it.

For example, Anton Kuerti (photo: right) has had a long association with Orford going back to its earliest days and he returned recently to teach and play the music he loves best. Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata displayed yet again Kuerti’s fondness for extreme dynamic contrasts and he gave a virtual master class in realizing Beethoven’s pedaling instructions. A great performance! Schubert’s magnificent B flat major Sonata was also played with total mastery and a seemingly infinite variety of tonal shadings. Kuerti also found in Schubert’s rhythms not the usual tiresome repetition, but a wealth of nuance.

At the OSM chamber concert on August 7th, we heard two genuine rarities: Poulenc’s La bal masque and Dutilleux’s Sonnets de Jean Cassou. Both performances featured the extraordinary French baritone François Le Roux (photo: right). He was in great form and Nagano and the OSM musicians were with him every step of its surreal way in the Poulenc. This music dates from 1932 and shows yet another facet of the composer’s resourcefulness with instrumental timbres. The Dutilleux songs are dark and unsettling and Le Roux and pianist Olivier Godin gave them powerful performances.

Stravinsky’s l’histoire du soldat sounds somewhat incomplete without the text that was meant to be an integral part of it but the OSM musicians again demonstrated their virtuosity and attention to detail.

Ravel’s Trio received a competent performance but the playing of violinist Marianne Dugal and cellist Sylvain Murray seemed to lack passion and sensuality. Pianist Olga Gross offered greater intensity in her playing.

The Salle Gilles Lefebre has recently undergone some renovations and the results are impressive. The 544-seat hall has become much more attractive and the acoustics are superb.

The programme notes for both concerts were attributed to Sylveline Bourion and they were frequently incomprehensible. I doubt that the translation was entirely to blame.

Paul E. Robinson is the author of Herbert von Karajan: The Maestro as Superstar, and Sir Georg Solti: His Life and Music. For friends: The Art of the Conductor podcastClassical Airs.

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