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The Montréal Chamber Music Festival

St. George Church (© Herring Rollmop)

Mark Twain observed that “You can’t throw a brick (in Montréal) without breaking a church window”, but that is patently outdated. The few churches filled on Sundays no longer have their French and English parishioners, but are populated with new immigrants, Latino and Vietnamese. Other churches have turned to Mammon, becoming banks and businesses.

Mark Twain’s bricks today would most likely shatter Montréal jam-packed restaurants, clubs, and, most interesting, the most eclectic festival schedule imaginable.

Picking up one of the monthly guides, one discovers, under May alone, festivals devoted to classic guitar, African films, Asian arts, “traditional dance”, “trans-American” arts, an “electronic picnic festival”, Fringe Festival, and an indecipherable thing called “Festivalissimo”.

Besides this, wandering along the streets through a rainy May weekend, one comes across a few poetry festivals, some painting festivals, and advertisements for the world-famed Montréal Jazz Festival, coming in June.

This is no sudden phenomena. In fact, 21 years ago, when cellist Denis Brott returned to his native town after many years in the United States, he realized that his first love, chamber music, would have little chance. Which is why he took a chance. And why the Montréal Chamber Music Festival has, against all the odds, had nearly full houses (or full churches) for 18-20 performances each May

Mr. Brott, an amiable pillar of the Montréal musical scene, ready to rehearse or play at a moment’s notice with his priceless 1706 David Tecchler cello, is sitting in his spacious music room at the Montréal Conservatory high up on Montréal’s “mountain”, and he gives his success story.

D. Brott (© Coco T. Dawg)

“I love chamber music myself, but it isn’t the most popular genre in the world. So we–Davis Joachim and myself–decided from the beginning to make it inclusive, not exclusive. This year, for example, yes, we’ve had Beethoven–all the quartets and a few quintets. But we have just as much chamber jazz.”

The jazz series this year (called over-cutely “Jazz & Jeans”) included an all-saxophone session, including a work by Brott’s father Alexander, the Lorraine Desmarais Trio, and the un-jazzy “Tango du Terroir: The Root of all Evil.”

But the Classical section wasn’t entirely serious, since it included the Swingle Singers and a concert called “Piano Madness.” (The madness encompassed Stravinsky, Bartók and Schubert, )

“But we have to find certain innovations to bring in our audience,” says Mr. Brott. “Now everybody knows Tchaikovsky’s “letter writing scene” from Eugene Onegin. But we had another scene, actually a drama based on the tormented letters written by the composer to Madame von Meck.”

The drama had a quartet of actors, as well as the James Ehnes Trio playing Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Massenet, interpolated with an acting script based on the real drama of the composer.

“Not all the concerts are packed solid,” says Mr. Brott, “but the church is filled up at least 80 percent. St. George actually can fit up to 600 people, not a mass crowd. But the acoustics are incredible, so we get the best of it.”

St. George Anglican Church does have very resonant sounds, thanks to a few buffers in front of the stage. For a Russian-music concert I heard, the sounds could have come from those voluminous Russian Orthodox cathedrals, not this fairly modern church.

Music in St. George (© Coco T. Dawg)

The budget for this year’s Festival was hardly huge by New York standards. At Canadian $600,000 for a full month, though, they were able to get excellent musicians, including the Swingle Singerrs, and a whole slew of string quartets including the Tokyo, Cecilia, Afiara and Chiara quartets. Much of the artistry was local, but some–like Nova Scotia-born cellist Denise Djokic–are already international stars.

The funds are about one-third from the Canadian and Québec governments (which are far far more generous than their southern brethren in the United States), with corporate sponsors, like American Airlines and Marriott Hotel (whicn sponsored my own visit), taking another half, The rest comes from tickets.

But much of the money comes from gala fund-raisers both in Canada and New York. Many of the funds come from a silent auction with such diverse luxuries as rare wines and trips to remote islands.

“The secret here,” says Davis Joachim, “is getting the right objects for your crowd, and getting the right buyers”

But perhaps the secrets of the Festival are its organizers, who are hardly kosher (in a metaphorical sense) compared to other festival organizers.

Both Denis Brott and Davis Joachim are first-generation Canadians, coming from parents and relatives who were string players, conductors and composers in Central Europe. When they escaped the Nazi regime and arrived in Canada during the middle 1930’s, music was not foremost in the minds of the country. But both men benefited from their Old World background.

Founder and Artistic Director Denis Brott, for instance, studied cello, later studying and performing in America. Amongst his teachers there were such luminaries as Leonard Rose, János Starker and Gregor Piatigorsky. Winner of many prizes, he performed through the States, but returned to Montréal in 1990, as cellist and teacher in the Conservatoire of Montréal.

A few years later, Brott turned to the Mayor ot Montréal, Pierre Bourque, with the idea for the Festival. According to Brott, he was initially far more enthusiastic than any politician has a right to be. Within a few years, the first festival was held on top of an extinct volcano in the large park here. Later it moved to a large church, and this year to St. George Anglican Church, where they intend to stay.

Administrator Davis Joachim’s family took a more circuitous route, from Germany to Shanghai and finally Montréal, where his father Otto continued as a notable composer. His father’s brother, Walter, was an esteemed cellist including amongst his students Denis Brott!

Davis Joachim–no relation to the famed 19th Century violinist, though his ancestors shared the same teacher–studied classical guitar and music administration, founding, with Denis Brott, the Chamber Music Festival, but soon other opportunities beckoned. He became Executive Director of several institutions, including I Musici de Montréal Chamber Orchestra, and the Orford Arts Centre. Last year, though, he rejoined the Chamber Music Festival as Administrator and–at times–genial interlocutor before the performances.

Denis Brott notes another singularity of the Montréal Chamber Music Festival. Yes, the inspiration came from Central European musicians who moved to Canada. But Québec itself is unique.

“We have here the French connection with its roots in Mediterranean arts. And we have the British connection, which always supported and appreciated the music of Germany and Central Europe. For the second group, our Beethoven series is obviously a big draw. But I like to think that the French parts inspired us to commission some Québec composers to compose tangos for this Festival.

When a reporter says that asking Canadian composers to write tangos would be like asking Anton Bruckner to write square dances, Mr. Brott stops him. “We are from Québec. We thrive on doing things differently.”

“Which is why our Festival is different than any other in the world.”

Harry Rolnick



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