The Montreal Chamber Music Festival
One never knows quite what to expect at the Montreal Chamber Music Festival (MCMF). In the 18 years of its existence, it has incorporated dance into its programming, explored the relationship between music and art, included readings from the stage by well-known actors, programmed a complete run of all 24 chamber works of Brahms, given dramatic enactments, added a highly popular jazz series, and offered free wine along with
rendezvous with musicians. With the MCMF’s 19th season looming, it can look back on a history of steady, consistent growth, much like a quality stock. It has no debt (it has operated in the black for the past four years) and pays excellent dividends in the form of prestige performers, imaginative programming, and an intimate, friendly, and, well, festive atmosphere.
“What I particularly like about this festival is its accessibility,” one concertgoer told me. “It has stimulating programming, the line-up of artists is quite remarkable, it’s affordable, and it’s informal. It’s very easy to strike up a conversation with your neighbor, and if you go to a series of concerts you develop a nodding acquaintance with fellow attendees.”
Like many ventures of its kind, the MCMF was born of the vision, enterprise, and passion of one man. In 1995, founding director Denis Brott inaugurated a series of chamber music concerts at a large, picturesque hunting lodge known as “the Chalet” atop Mt. Royal, overlooking the city. “I saw that other major cities had such festivals and Montreal didn’t,” says Brott. “So I went to the mayor [at the time, Pierre Bourque], told him I had no money, but if the city backed me for five years, we would become self-sustaining and give the city a valuable attraction.” The Chalet’s excellent acoustics, a sweeping view of the city skyline and St. Lawrence River below, and much greenery all around contributed to a winning combination.
That first year, Brott timed his festival to coincide with the colors of fall on the mountain, which puts on a spectacular display each year. The second festival was held in late spring of 1997, a time slot Brott has maintained ever since. “It was foolish to try and compete with the other musical organizations in the city, all opening their seasons in September,” says Brott. “I now do my festival when most everything else has closed down for the season, but before the summer festivals gear up.”
In 2006 the MCMF came down from the mountain. Bowing to complaints that the Chalet was too difficult to reach (it involved a long hike through the woods and up 120 steps from city center, or a lengthy stroll from a not-so-nearby parking lot), Brott found a venue right downtown in the form of one of Montreal’s magnificent old churches. For 80 years, the breathtaking sandstone facade of St. James United Church had been hidden behind a row of commercial buildings. Just months before the 2006 Festival opened, the ratty old structures obscuring the church were stripped away to reveal an imposing portal beneath a huge rose window flanked by grand towers. It was truly a revelation. But this location proved to have problems too. Outside it was adjacent to a major construction site, inside sightlines were not always good, circulation was poor, and seats were uncomfortable. Ever the optimist, Brott and his trusty administrator Davis Joachim set off in search of something better. They found it in another church, and a beauty it is. St. George’s Anglican Church sits in a quiet, leafy setting just two blocks from the city’s main crossroads (St. Catherine and Peel Streets), and represents a fine example of English Gothic Revival architecture. Seating about 500 on cushioned pews, with a high vaulted wood ceiling and gorgeous stained-glass windows, it is visually and acoustically a gem. Back in business!
Brott has been a fixture on Canada’s classical music scene for four decades now. After winning the Munich International Cello Competition in 1972, he went on to become a member of the famed Orford Quartet for nine years, and now sustains three careers—as performer of both solo and chamber music repertory, professor (at the Montreal Conservatoire), and Artistic Director of the MCMF.
Through Brott’s infectious enthusiasm, a regular flow of email messages to keep potential audience members informed, and a “trust factor” built up over the years, he has built an enviable audience base. The box office in 2013 was up 50 percent over just the past three years. What many Festival-goers like about the experience is the programming. “Programming is the key to success,” states the Festival’s Administrator, Davis Joachim. “People will take a chance on the unfamiliar if they trust you. They look forward to the unknown, with the attitude of ‘Try it, you’ll like it.’”
Not every event is an artistic success. Particularly disappointing at the 2013 Festival was the playing of the Fine Arts Quartet. It was anything but fine. In fact, it bordered on the disgraceful, with coarse, uncultured sound, ragged attacks, and little attention given to homogeneity of sound, style, or balance. Brott’s idea to offer two complete programs of Saint-Saëns’s chamber music was laudable, but it also proved why this repertory is seldom heard. Most of it is just dull, especially as rendered by the Fine Arts Quartet and friends.
Another major disappointment was the performance by the renowned Brazilian guitarists, the Assad Brothers, joined by Cuban clarinetist and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera. Everything sounded the same, tired and uninspired. Even their arrangement of the “Hoe-down” from Copland’s
had all the zing ploughed out of it.
But these were more than offset by the successes. Each year the festival typically generates one concert so unusual, so magical, or of such transcendent beauty—and often totally unexpected—that the memory of it lingers for weeks, even years. That event in 2013 for me was the playing of an 18-year-old Chinese-American pianist, Conrad Tao. Tao had played the year before as well, but I had missed him. This year he proved to be a revelation. In the all-Tchaikovsky marathon concert that closed the Festival, he first played a transcription of the scherzo from the “Pathétique” Symphony in a stunning display of sterling clarity, technical assurance, and powerful sound that came close to approximating a full orchestra. It was great fun, but one missed the range of colors and contrasts one hears from an orchestra. Tao then proceeded to reveal the profound musicianship he harbors as well in a superb performance of the Piano Trio, in which he was joined by violinist Giora Schmidt and cellist Denis Brott. Tao fully expressed the grand sweep and nobility of this music; he made the piano sing, and he brought all the color and nuance and dynamic contrast to his playing that were missing in the “Pathétique” scherzo. This young pianist has it all, and is surely headed for a sensational career.
Another highlight was a visit by the Emerson Quartet in what was billed as its first full performance with their new cellist, Paul Watkins. This is the first change in the Quartet’s personnel since 1979—34 years!—so many in the audience were listening to him with special intent. They were richly rewarded, for Watkins blended perfectly with his colleagues and possessed technical agility even above that of the others. The program opened with a Haydn Quartet (op. 20/3) that could have used a little more elegance. Next came Bartók’s Quartet No. 2, which managed to sound both wild and controlled at the same time. Passionate intensity, impressive perfection of ensemble, unanimity of concept, and a huge dynamic range were the features of a performance that ignited the imagination. After intermission came one of Beethoven’s longest quartets, op. 59/1 (not op. 59/2 as the program book advertised). As with the Haydn Quartet, the playing was more muscular than elegant, but Beethoven can take this kind of treatment. Every phrase breathed, there was meaning in every note, and the playing had all the freshness and spontaneity that suggested this could have been the first time they had played the work, yet also the maturity and insight that comes from 40 years of playing together.
Each year the Festival focuses on one or two main thrusts. One year it was the complete cycle of Beethoven quartets, another year the complete Shostakovich quartets. In 2013, one of those thrusts was a three-concert series of Bach, each one with a theme. All six
on one evening proved to be a popular draw, not surprisingly in view of the soloists on tap: Elizabeth Wallfisch (violin), Hank Knox (harpsichord), and Jens Lindemann (trumpet). Another evening offered six concertos for or with violin(s) featuring Rachel Barton Pine, always a Festival favorite. Then there were the Swingle Singers, back for their second visit to the Festival and celebrating their 50th anniversary season. Their program was understandably heavy on Bach. But the most fascinating Bach program was a truly unique event. Back in 1985, Brott had been the generating force behind the establishment of the Canada Council’s Musical Instrument Bank, which now holds $35 million worth of Stradivari, Guarneri, Gagliano, and other legendary instruments. These are loaned, through competition, for a three-year period to promising young artists. This year, all 16 winners of the 2012 competition came together for the first time on one stage to demonstrate both their own talents and the glory of the instruments they played, performing movements from the solo violin and cello sonatas.
The results were predictably varied, ranging from the dreary to the dazzling. Most had yet to master the nuances of color and dynamics. Rhythmic niceties were often ignored, and there were other technical problems as well. But two violinists stood out especially. Nineteen-year-old Timothy Chooi’s contribution, two movements from the A-Minor Sonata, showed him to be a violinist with tons of talent. He had ideas and knew how to project them to an audience. But it was his older brother Nikki who was the real star of the show. In his performance of the other two movements of the same Sonata, he demonstrated assured understanding of the music’s structure, maintained full technical control throughout, and played with a full, balanced sound and expressive use of dynamics. Nikki also made a deep impression on me a few days earlier at the concurrent Montreal International Musical Competition.
Brott is an adventurer and a risk-taker. He pursues his goals to their ultimate fulfillment with the tenacity of a pit bull, but one with velvet paws. He has nursed his Festival from an initial budget of $75,000 to ten times that and it is still growing. Among other ventures, he has lured Boston’s leading cultural radio station, WGBH, into recording all the Festival’s classical concerts for broadcast in the Boston area. WGBH then offers them to about 250 public media throughout the country, to a total of some six million listeners.
Brott’s avowed goal is to break down barriers between music and audiences, to “humanize” the musical experience. To this end he makes warmly welcoming remarks before each concert, encourages his musicians to engage in dialogue with the audience, and incorporates visual and literary props such as readings of composers’ letters and diaries, or projections of paintings and manuscripts to personalize the music’s links to daily life. The Festival claimed a 99.32 percent audience survey satisfaction rate this year. Last year, it was awarded the Grand Prix du tourisme québecois for the second time, plus the Prix Coup d’Eclat. Brott himself received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Award. As far back as 2004 the Montreal Board of Trade named him a “Great Montrealer,” an award given to four individuals each year who have made their mark on the city.
“We must remember that chamber music served a tremendously important socializing function for centuries,” Brott notes. So did the church. By superimposing one way of life on the other, Brott may have found just the formula he needs to enlarge his flock.
The 19th Festival will take place from May 8 to May 31, 2014. festivalmontreal.org