Montreal - Summer has come to Montreal, and this excitable francophone city is exploding with life: street fairs choke the Vieux-Ville, outdoor art and music abounds in the Latin Quartier, bars spill out onto the sidewalk all along Boulevard Saint-Laurent.
But when the weather gets warm, Montreal is known above all else for its festivals. (See here for highlights from my first visit in 2009.) According to the city's official website, there are over 100 festivals each year held in Montreal, with the majority happening from May-September. Some, such as the Montreal Jazz Festival and MUTEK (which goes off this week) have worldwide reputations that draw thousands of tourists to town. Others, such as the avant-jazz/experimental fest Suoni Per Il Popolo, are more homegrown, programming a mix of local and international performers over several weeks to give locals a sense of the larger musical world outside this medium-sized city.
Such is the raison d'etre of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, now in it's 17th year. (The festival, which began with a series of free outdoor performances on May 10, continues through June 2.) As with other events in a town known for it's fluid festival programming, the MCMF takes a broad view of "chamber music," incorporating not just classical music but jazz, world music, even dance into it's programming.
"The idea is to present it all in a chamber music format," says MCMF founder and Artistic Director Denis Brott. As such, all of the four-week-long festival's concerts take place in St. George's Church: a 19th century Anglican church on Peel Street, in the shadow of downtown's skyscrapers. St. George's gabled wood roof and five-panel canopy over the stage - emblazoned with images of the festival's signature penguin - lend a warm acoustic to the intimate 600 seat church, ideal for chamber music. (Montreal, which last year opened a superb new concert hall for the OSM, lacks a purpose-built chamber music hall.)
But, MCMF is about much more than just innovative, cross-genre programming. Prior to performing the complete Bach cello suites (May 16-17), British cellist Colin Carr conducted a masterclass with top cello students from Montreal. In an interview in this month's La Scena Musicale, Brott - a well-regarded cellist in his own right - says that he wanted to create a "mini Marlboro Festival," where students can take masterclasses and perform alongside seasoned veterans.
Moreover, the festival has managed to retain it's hand's-on feel, with Brott and festival administrator Davis Joachim personally greeting audience members at the back of the church during intermission, chatting folks up at length. In addition, all patrons are invited to a free post-concert reception with the musicians in the adjacent banquet hall.
Over this past weekend, I had the opportunity to attend three concerts that showcased the wide-ranging aspects of the MCMF. On Friday night, the Pacifica Quartet played Shostakovich's final three quartets, completing a four-concert marathon of the composer's complete string quartets. The Pacifica, who I last saw in 2008 performing Elliott Carter's complete quartets (for which they won a Grammy), is seeing their star on the rise: they were just named the new Quartet-in-Residence at Indiana University's Jacobs School of Music, and played a series of concerts across Europe this past spring.
Shostakovich's quartets stand with those of Bartók and Beethoven as the greatest achievements in the genre, notable for their dramatic intensity and somber outlook. In all, Shostakovich wrote 15 quartets - one less than Beethoven - and are generally regarded as his "pure music," as opposed to his 15 symphonies, which were often retrofitted to appease the Soviet establishment. The last three quartets, in particular, are reminiscent of Beethoven's introspective, visionary late quartets.
The 13th quartet (1970), which opened the program, was performed as one continuous movement. With the lights low on the dark wood interior, I had the sense that I was walking through an old house, creepy and windblown. At five minutes in, the violins and viola stab at the strings, Psycho-style, and I started to feel a real sense of unease, keeping one eye locked on the doors marked "SORTIE." After another 10 minutes or so of quiet meandering, the quartet ended in an astonishing final crescendo, played in unison like a primal scream.
Respite came in the form of the 14th quartet (1973), which, while not without it's disturbing dissonances, was generally playful in mood. In the final movement, the music turns lyrical, almost saccharine-sweet, softly passing into another realm. It was as if Shostakovich had finally made peace with himself after decades of inner struggle.
Shostakovich's final quartet, No. 15 (1974) was written in the last year of his life, when his health and well-being were rapidly deteriorating. Clocking in at nearly 40 minutes, it is a quiet valedictory, written in six linked movements all marked 'Adagio.' For their performance, the Pacifica had all of the lights in the church turned off, plunging the space into near-total darkness. It was as haunting a musical environment as I've ever experienced, classical or otherwise.
The opening "Elegy" seems rooted in world of quiet stasis, much like Morton Feldman's marathon quartets, which were written not long after. Shostakovich's own instructions are telling:
"Play the first movement so that flies drop dead in mid-air and the audience leaves the hall out of sheer boredom."
After twelve minutes or so, Shostakovich shatters this motionless state with 12 piercing cries, same as the crescendo at the end of the 13th quartet. After 25 minutes of back-and-forth struggle, the music culminates in a bleak viola solo, revealing the crisis of a man who does not want to pass from this world, but ultimately knows he must surrender. The whole experience got completely under my skin.
On Saturday night, I was ready for something a little more light-hearted, and the festival obliged with an evening of jazz, which has long been a staple of the MCMF. (Previously, the festival showcased Eldar's new trio and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.) For once, I was looking forward to being able to listen without the usual clanging of plates and glasses associated with most jazz clubs.
Unfortunately, things got off on the wrong foot, as one of the five canopy panels collapsed just as French guitarist Sylvain Luc was warming up, dangling precariously to his left. Luc turned, looked up, said "Incroyable," and went right on playing his solo set. Cool customer.
After taking a break to remove the dangling panel, Montreal bassist Alain Caron came onstage to play a solo bass set, filling out his sound with lots of twang and sustain. Luc then returned to join Caron in a series of improvised standards. It took them awhile to get going, but eventually Caron was jamming freely while Luc wielded his Godin guitar like a latter-day Django Reinhardt. Appropriately so: Luc won the prestigious Django d'Or in 2008.
The music returned to the classical realm on Sunday afternoon, courtesy of Manitoba-native James Ehnes, one of today's most visible concert violinists and perhaps the greatest violinist Canada has yet produced. "Jimmy," as Denis Brott affectionately calls him, brought along several friends to perform an all-Ravel program, including Detroit Symphony Orchestra principal cellist Robert deMaine in the Sonata for Violin and Cello (1922): a mature work of incredibly rich color for its spare instrumentation. Ehnes and deMaine seemed as if they'd been playing together all their lives, with deep, emotional phrasing and crisp, clean finishes.
Pianist Andrew Armstrong joined Ehnes and deMaine for the Trio in A Minor (1914), an intoxicating blend of lyrical melody and exotic mystery. After the dark despair of the "Pantoum," and the Orientalism of the "Lent," the Finale exploded with ecstatic energy, with all three players firing on all cylinders.
The concert ended with the Quartet in F (1903), written when Ravel was 27 as his entry for the coveted Prix de Rome. Ravel lost the prize, but the quartet has become Ravel's best-known chamber work, a sunny stroll through fields and streams that's as challenging as it is satisfying. Performed here by the James Ehnes String Quartet - which, in addition to deMaine and Ehnes includes violinist Amy Schwartz Moretti and violist Richard O'Neill - the players threw everything they had at it, particularly the final "Vif et agité," played with fiery intensity. The audience gave them a well-deserved standing ovation.
Regrettably, I couldn't stick around for Monday night's all-Bartók program, featuring the same performers. Also on this week are the classical comedy duo Igudesman and Roo (who I saw last week), the complete Mozart Viola Quintets (May 29 & 31), the Manouche jazz of the Angelo Debarre Quartet (June 1), and a concluding marathon concert (June 2) surveying Dvořák's chamber music written during his stay in America, performed by the Cecelia String Quartet and soloists.
During the post-concert reception on Sunday, Brott told me he hopes to expand the festival next year to Boston and New York, with concerts and masterclasses modeled on what they've developed in Montreal. And, while there is certainly no shortage of quality chamber music here in NYC, it doesn't often come with the same warmth and hospitality that seems second-nature to our friends to the north.
But, by all means, don't let that stop you from making a weekend trip north, either this season or next. The MCMF may not be the best known of Montreal's multidinous festivals, but it might just be one of the most surprising - and satisfying.
More pics below and on the photo page.