Written by Conor Coady
Preaching in the 1960s about the need for one-on-one guidance on the road to expertise, Michael Polanyi wrote “Connoisseurship, like skill, can be communicated only by example, not by precept. To become an expert wine-taster, to acquire a knowledge of innumerable blends of tea or to be trained as a medical diagnostician, you must go through a long course of experience under the guidance of a master.” A decorated scientist and philosopher, Polanyi was unconnected to the world of musical training. Yet, more than any other form of education, it’s in the development of aspiring classical musicians that Polanyi’s prescription for a “long course of experience under the guidance of a master” is most rigorously applied.
Whereas aspiring experts in other fields usually don’t access deep mentorship until they make it to graduate studies, classical musicians grow through one-on-one apprenticeship from the moment they start playing. It’s expensive and demanding (and always difficult for university administrators to justify), but it works. Yet the myth of the solitary genius – the young musical prodigy who is simply born with it – still lingers among much of the general public. In reality, even the most gifted young musicians are extremely connected to (and dependant on) their musical masters from the get-go.
The reality of deep musical mentorship is why the Montreal Chamber Music Festival’s pre-festival “Mentor & Apprentices” series is a great idea; it’s an opportunity to show off up-and-coming performers side-by-side with the masters who nourished (and no doubt have also been nourished by) them. With connections and interdependencies through generations of performers on display, the harmful myth of independent greatness can exit stage-left and linger in conspicuous absence.
Three “Mentor & Apprentice” events take place this Spring before the festival officially kicks off June 1st. April 29th features organizationally and musically heroic festival organizer Denis Brott in the mentor role, playing cello with a group of rising string-playing stars. Then on May 20th, words-don’t-do-justice-to-his-skills pianist Richard Raymond will team up with highly-touted student Sarah Oulousian for an all-piano affair.
Last Sunday’s series-opener that kicked things off was charming, unusual and well-received. It didn’t strictly follow the mentor-apprentice format, featuring stand-up comedy/classical crossover clarinetist Christopher Hall performing with the Andara Quartet. Brott, the festival organizer, is the quartet’s musical mentor and wasn’t playing, but the quartet team of Marie-Claire Vaillancourt (violin), Jeanne Côté (violin), Vincent Delorme (viola) and Dominique Beauséjour-Ostiguy (cello) seemed perfectly comfortable and impressively flexible backing up Hall’s classical-comedy pot-pourri. When they were briefly given the full spotlight, they served up a clean, vigorously groovy excerpt from Ginastera’s String Quartet #1.
With the quartet’s mentor out of the spotlight, Christopher Hall offered a form of bilingual cultural mentoring for the audience. His comedy stylings consistently and agreeably interrupt the program’s pieces as he riffs on the stereotypes of good conduct at classical concerts. His family-friendly style depends on audience participation and is outside my range of comedy preferences, but it went over extremely well with the audience. His opening list of do’s and don’ts at classical concerts was particularly successful (it even included a perfectly executed explanation of wrapper torture). And performing a show like Hall’s in two languages is almost impossible: to repeat everything or just the important bits? (What are the important bits?) To play one language group against the other or to try to bring them together? We’re used to these challenges in Montreal and the jokes about cultural differences never seem to get old, so long as there isn’t too much resentment between people.
Hall mostly avoided the dreariness of verbatim translations and used the bilingual opportunity to poke fun at both language groups in ways that made the repetitions complementary, not redundant. It wouldn’t be easy, but he might consider in-the-moment limiting to one language for gags that don’t quite come off. I suggest this because the low point for me was a joke about Robert Schumann’s schizophrenic suicide-by-drowning (three voices in his head, none of them could swim) which, after tanking in English, was dutifully (and agonizingly) repeated in French. Ahhh, Canada.
The music itself was a secondary concern – constant comic interruptions meant that we almost never heard a piece in its entirety – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The show was about Christopher Hall, his big, bright personality and his ambition to win over sovereigntists and federalists, Francophones and Anglophones (the politics of receiving federal grants came up more than once).
When the music did take centre stage, it was excellent. A short virtuoso piece by Weber and Bach’s famous Arioso were performed without comedic interruption. The Weber was dazzling and the Bach was elegant. I was frustrated by an encore that hopped around a few different pieces in a short span of time and was meant to be a musical illustration of Hall’s recently diagnosed ADHD. After a concert where there was never more than five consecutive minutes of music, what could have been a short psycho-musical illumination just felt like more-of-the-same.
It’s a little embarrassing, but the musical moment that got to me the most was meant for the background: the Andara Quartet’s performance of The Girl from Ipanema, played as Hall had a mock-cellphone conversation with our Prime Minister that poked fun at both Trudeau and Trump. If actual you’re-on-hold muzak sounded this good, I’d gladly call the Régie du Logement and wait around to speak to an agent, just for fun.
The concert took place at the Ritz-Carleton, in the luxuriously carpeted Oval Room, a first for the festival. And while a classical Sunday brunch at the Ritz makes for an excellent promotional blurb, it presented a few practical difficulties. Although the audience was promised a “Continental Breakfast”, most people couldn’t get food in time for the concert to begin. People were promised “more food is on the way” and then, as they made their way to line up, told that they should take their seats immediately. People enjoying a quiet coffee at a side table were emphatically urged by organizers to take their appropriate seats (despite the lack of assigned seating), not more than five paces away.
The reason people were being asked to move? “Because the sound will be better.” This insistence on following traditional seating rules was strange, considering the acoustical and programmatic context: a heavily carpeted room, listening to mic’d up concert featuring short musical excerpts interspersed with Mr. Hall’s comedy stylings (which themselves were intended to subvert classical norms). I feel strongly enough to utter some blasphemy: the entire experience would have been improved if people had just sat where they liked and continued lining up for coffee and food throughout the concert. With Christopher Hall steering the ship, it wasn’t ever going to be a sacred musical experience of silence.
Still, these problems were the result of the concert’s success, with a packed house exceeding the organizers’ expectations for the new location. And it’s important to frame any criticism within something like a Big Picture point of view: when you hear about the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, it’s easy to shrug off its existence as an obvious thing; we’re a culturally rich city with plenty of talented musicians so of course we have a chamber festival. But that’s the kind of culturally entitled attitude that overlooks the extremely busy people putting in gigantic efforts to plan, execute and hold together an endless number of moving parts. This year’s festival includes appearances from fabulous musicians like pianists André Laplante and David Jalbert, The New York Philharmonic Quartet and shining star jazz saxophonist Grace Kelly. So when I’m describing things that didn’t quite work Sunday morning, I hope that what comes through isn’t uppity nitpicking. If it can be done with a little more flexibility (and the benefit of a few run-throughs), what is already a great thing will be fantastic at the Ritz.
On top of being a respected musical performer and mentor at McGill, Dennis Brott should be celebrated as a mentor to his cultural colleagues. He may be a genius, but he’s definitely not a solitary, isolated genius, and thank God for that. The road to mastery in the art of grooming a city’s cultural landscape runs through people like him and his team.
The Mentor & Apprentice Series of the Montreal Chamber Music Festival took place Sunday April 15 at the Ritz-Carlton Montreal. Keep an eye out for future events from the Montreal Chamber Orchestra Music Festival HERE.