Festival of the Sound: Quartet Day

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One of the key interests driving the curating of this year’s Quartet Day (August 1) was capturing the energy of rehearsal. Great rehearsals can happen when you discover something new about music you long thought you understood; when something suddenly clicks; when everyone’s pistons are firing at the same pace towards a common goal. Sometimes, it’s just the act of searching together — be it in sound or concept — that invigorates. There is an adrenaline that we musicians feel with the freshness of dialogue and at the very moment of discovery. Great rehearsals lead to great concerts, but rehearsals have themselves made up some of the great experiences in music.

This made me wonder what it would be like to bring the audience into the world of the rehearsal. Having attended and given open rehearsals and pre-concert chats alike, it seemed interesting to attempt to illuminate some of these elements from rehearsal to performance (each concert will still have the pieces performed in their entirety at the end).

In open rehearsals, one always wonders what the musicians are working on exactly, what they are thinking, why they are doing it again and what are they listening to? Cecilia Quartet’s “Afternoon for Modern Music” features Shostakovich Quartet No. 9 and the beautiful Ravel Quartet. The audience will be treated to the Cecilia’s “sound-check”, the way they prepare themselves right before a full-blown performance. The twist is that the concert will be “sportscast” by Jeffrey Stokes and James Campbell, who will explain what the Cecilias are working on and why. Think of the live sports coverage we see on television like the PGA Tour and how the colour commentary brings the audience in on the difficulties of a shot, statistics like the wind and grade of the hill, thoughts about which club the athlete is deciding to use. 

Another element that both Quartets value and I wanted to underscore was the entry point we use towards any piece: What was it like to play this music for the first time, to play it to an audience hearing it for the first time, and in the city, culture, and society of that time? 

When one looks at the etymology of the word “rehearse”, we see it means “to repeat”, from the old French rehercier, meaning literally “to rake, to turn over”. In turning something over and contemplating it, I wondered how much the act of rehearsing could be seen as a re-hearing. How can we as musicians make ourselves responsible to re-hear what we know in order to continue to plumb the depths of this music afresh?

These questions are important to us because it means we are as sensitive to the surprises and poignancy of a moment in music as it was intended, as it first occurred, as it would be understood: One cannot quite hear Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet with the same expectations on the harmonic language of, say, Schoenberg. It would be like watching a Shakespearean drama expecting its climax to have the scale of explosion found in a futuristic science-fiction movie. This is of course ridiculous, but as an artist, endeavouring to revisit the climate and speed of the times where a work was created helps us see the magnitude of something with the same sense of excitement, surprise, and delight.

To that end, Jeffrey Stokes will be our historic character Anton Kuhnel (who was a contemporary of Prince Esterhazy, the patron of Haydn). He is a friendly ghost that haunts Esterhazy’s Palace but somehow finds himself at the Stockey Center after being caught in one of our photographs when we performed at Esterhazy’s Palace earlier this summer. In an element of fun and humour, Jeff will entertain, shock, and enlighten the Afiara and Cecilia Quartets as he invades each of our rehearsals as a gruff, wise musician who was there when it all came together. Cecilia Quartet will be playing two Haydn Quartets in the morning, and Afiaras will be performing Beethoven at noon.

In a celebration of the masterworks, Thursday evening will have Afiaras performing Mozart’s Dissonance, Cecilias performing Janacek’s “Kreutzer Sonata”, and, finally, both Quartets united together with Mendelssohn’s unmatched String Octet. The entire concert will be further animated by Jeff’s slides and commentary on the program’s musical relationship with literature like Tolstoy and Goethe.

I hope you will join us for an informal day of fun, discovery, and, yes, rehearsal!

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