The Molinari Quartet Turns 10by Kate Molleson
/ November 18, 2007
Olga Ranzenhofer remembers being
nervous the first time she approached Guido Molinari to ask whether
he would lend his name to her new string quartet. “I wrote hundreds
of drafts of that letter – I still have them.” The Montreal
painter seemed an ideal mentor; he had been at the forefront of the
Quebec avant-garde for half a century, his bold primary colours and
straight-lined geometrics an easy emblem of artistic modernity. Moreover,
his name could be pronounced in several languages.
Molinari’s response was enthusiastic.
Ranzenhofer says, “When I approached him he had recently retired;
by associating himself with a modern music group he kept his name relevant
in the arts scene. It was an association that worked in both directions,”
A decade later, Ranzenhofer points
to the slabs of red, yellow and blue that cover the walls of the quartet’s
East Montreal studio. “Our fake Molinaris!” she exclaims, explaining
that they serve as acoustic insulation as well as artistic inspiration.
“We were very close to Molinari until his death in 2004. We had the
same line of inspiration, the same goals. When I talked about music,
I was using the vocabulary of colours, of textures. And he talked about
his art as harmony and series. We were talking in the other person’s
Molinari’s work set a striking
visual example for the quartet’s musical mandate. After spending 10
years as second violinist alongside Denise Lupien in the Morency Quartet,
Ranzenhofer felt ready to form her own quartet – one with a venturous
commitment to 20th - and 21st
- century repertoire. Apart from the Kronos and Arditti, few quartets
in the world focus exclusively on modern music. She says, “Many quartets
programme this repertoire, but they’ll throw in a Haydn or a Beethoven.
Not us.” Which doesn’t mean their concerts are all squeaks
and chord clusters; Ranzenhofer is careful to draw the distinction between
‘modern’ and ‘contemporary’. “We play Shostakovich, Bartok,
Ravel – some of that was written over 100 years ago, and is pretty
easy going in terms of ‘contemporary’ music.”
This year marks the Molinari’s
10th season, but it’s in no danger of post-anniversary monotony. Family
and other professional commitments have meant the quartet has seen several
personnel changes over the years; Ranzenhofer is the only remaining
member of the Molinari’s original line-up, having been joined recently
by second violinist Frédéric Bernarz, violist Frédéric Lambert and
cellist Pierre-Alain Bouvrette. But she insists Molinari remains more
than a purely symbolic name for the group – for despite the three-quarters
changeover it has been possible to maintain a sense of continuity. Over
the years the quartet has become an institution.
“Of course our sound will change
with new players. It’s changed my playing personally – when you
play with different people, you play differently. But the changes will
allow us to do a lot more. We’ve got young and virtuosic and energetic
musicians, ” she adds.
Lambert explains that the process
of building a unified group sound can provide an incentive to revisit
basic techniques: how to play in tune, how to play together. “Individually
we have to understand the approach of everyone else in the group. We
watch one another, we notice, ‘he does this bow stroke in this style.’
After a while we’ll know that without having to watch. Then it will
be possible to bring the four sounds together. It takes time, and compromise.
And that’s why attitude is so important – you can’t have a diva
in the group. Thankfully, I don’t think we have any divas among us!”
The quartet has spent the summer
getting to know each other’s approaches through the stalwarts of its
repertoire – Shostakovich’s 8th Quartet, Barber’s Adagio. “It
would be hard to establish a group sound if we started with very contemporary
works,” Ranzenhofer says.
But upcoming seasons reaffirm that
the quartet’s programming won’t be retreating to the safety of standards.
“Our repertoire is huge, and always expanding,” Ranzenhofer says.
An association with Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer has provided
some of the quartet’s highest profile commissions – three of his
eleven quartets were written for the Molinari. And the group’s fondness
for marathon events remains evident; having completed series called
The Quartet According to Bartok and The Quartet According to Schafer,
next year it’s the turn of Alfred Schnittke.
Despite Quebec’s famously open-minded
audience, the quartet knows it still has work to do to widen its listenership.
Before moving back to Montreal to play with the Molinari, Bernarz worked
in Boston, where he says the difference in arts funding is palpable.
“There are more people, more musicians – more money. The contemporary
scene is more integrated. In Montreal, if the MSO plays Elliot Carter,
its audience will be sceptical.”
Ranzenhofer says the problem lies
in our concert-going habits, not in our interest levels. “Five or
10 years ago halls were full, but now even the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne
has problems reaching capacity. People in Montreal adopt one group and
don’t go to the others. If you go to the MSO you don’t go to the
Orchestre Métropolitain, if you go to the Société de musique contemporaine
you don’t go to the NEM. Everything is boxed, and that means we’re
all finding it hard to fill our halls.” She supports the idea of creating
a centre for modern music, “a home where all the modern music in Montreal
would be played. It has been discussed, but if it happens it’ll be
way down the road.”
A crucial element of the Molinari’s
mission statement is its role in introducing new audiences to a repertoire
that many find intimidating. Ranzenhofer explains, “We hold ‘dialogues’
a week before each concert. It’s a wonderful feeling when an elderly
person comes to me and says ‘I’ve never dared to listen to this
kind of music, but what you just showed us was really interesting.’
We try to encourage people to listen in different ways than they’re
used to; we say ‘don’t listen for themes – think about colours.’
“In my opinion, music is like
food; taste it and you might like it.”
The Molinari Quartet opens its 2007-2008
season with Gubaidulina, Webern, Palmieri and Shostakovich on November
23rd at 8 pm in the Maison des Jeunesses Musicales du Canada (305 Avenue
du Mont-Royal Est).