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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 3 November 2007

The Molinari Quartet Turns 10

by 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 language.”

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).

(c) La Scena Musicale