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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 10

Jonathan Crow: The Art of Transmission

by Lucie Renaud / July 8, 2009

Version française...

It's impossible to label violinist Jonathan Crow; he takes an almost perverse pleasure in brushing them away with a sweep of his hand. Born in Prince George, British Columbia, Crow gladly adopted Montreal as his hometown after completing studies at McGill. In conversation he is talkative, yet attentive, and always ready with a quick reply. Blessed with uncommonly good looks, he is still quite modest. One is left with the impression that he metamorphosed from teen to man under the benevolent gaze of OSM audiences, moved almost as much by his impeccable pitch and fullness of tone as by his seemingly eternal adolescence (he goes by Jonathan, never as Mr. Crow). If you don't do the arithmetic (he was born in 1977), you would never guess that the two-seater stroller parked at the foot of his home's staircase and the little running shoes scattered in the entranceway confirm his status as a proud father, one who is not even bothered that his oldest prefers voice or cello to his violin.

An orchestral musician, soloist, chamber musician, and teacher, he refuses to be confined to a single genre. He plays Bach and Tchaikovsky with as much ease as Ligeti, Schnittke, and Canadian composers such as Michael Conway Baker, Eldon Rathburn, Barrie Cabena, Ernest MacMillan, or Healey Willan. "When a student comes in with a contemporary piece that I've never seen before," he admits, "it helps me expand my knowledge of music. There is so much repertoire to cover!"

Joining the Montreal Symphony as associate second violin at the age of 19, Crow moved up to the associate concertmaster's chair within a matter of months. In 2002 he was named concertmaster, becoming the youngest musician to occupy such a post with a large North American orchestra-a position that he held until 2006. Between regular season concerts, he continued to play as a soloist with other ensembles. In May 1997, he played Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major for a Victoria Symphony benefit concert under the direction of Yehudi Menuhin. Blown away by what he had heard, Menuhin invited Crow on the spot to rejoin him with the orchestra the following year.

In 1999, Crow told La Scena Musicale that he wanted to give ten solo concerts per year. He has kept that promise, despite his 18 students at McGill University and his chamber music activities. Currently, he plays with the Triskelion string trio as well as alongside violist Douglas McNabney and cellist Matt Haimovitz (both also professors at McGill) with whom he recently recorded Bach's Goldberg Variations. Beginning in July, he will also join the new Orford Quartet (see sidebar).

Crow prefers the excitement of multiple projects to the humdrum of the daily grind. "People who go to concerts often become blasé. It is unfortunate," he explains. "This is why I'm really into doing chamber music at this time of my career. I really liked playing in an orchestra but in a 3000-seat hall the people sitting in the last row are a long way away and it's very hard to make a connection with them. If you're playing something like the Goldberg Variations for 300 people, you can see the person in the last row. You can tell if they're snoring, or having a great time, or if the music is affecting them. I feel that every performance is different because the interaction with the audience is different. When you get too many people, it becomes a faceless crowd and you don't have the connection anymore."

Crow remains skeptical that classical music is threatened: "It's not just now that we've been talking about classical music dying; it has being going on for hundreds of years! I think a lot of the students who are coming through are very realistic about the world of classical music. Years ago, you aimed for a job in an orchestra. It's not that they don't want that anymore, but they have other very interesting ideas. For example, they want to teach in India or perform in different settings, like Matt Haimovitz. It just changes. As classical musicians, we have to be better at understanding what we are doing with music. In a hall, 10% are just there, 80% are there to be entertained and have a nice night out and they enjoy the concert, and the remaining 10% are the people you can really touch-maybe just 5%. But every time I play the Goldberg Variations, there is at least one person that tells me that this is the most amazing concert he or she has been to. If we can do that, we are going to be more than successful. People at the concert will get something out of it, will be touched by the music."

He seeks this connection in recital as well as in the recording studio, even if communicating the subtleties of the solo violin repertoire is less obvious, as in his CD released by XXI-21 records. The music is as demanding for the performer-notably in Bartók's formidable Sonata for Solo Violin-as it is for the listener, who never knows what to listen to. "When you see a violinist and a pianist, you have expectations of what you will hear, even though it may not always be correct," Crow elaborates. "You know that the piano will have the bass. When you think of solo violin, you may think: 'where is the bass?' This is something that I'm considering as I'm performing: what is the audience going to listen to? What do they need to hear for it to make sense to them? They need to have some idea of the structure and I try to make it clear. It is even more difficult when you record. In concert, the audience can see what you are doing, how you breathe and when the notes are produced. In a recording, there is none of that."

Crow also speaks proudly of his special connection with students. "I wasn't sure what to expect when I took up the position at McGill," he said. "I had done some teaching before but never with a large studio. With 18 students, they basically become like family and they help each other out so much. They play for each other, offer suggestions and give each other approval." He tries to adapt to their diverse personalities, as his professor Jehonatan Berick did with him: "The one thing I really liked is that Berick didn't have a system. He was really great in tailoring his teaching, adapting to each student, and this is something that I really try to do. All students have different needs. What we loved in the studio is that he really treated everybody with the same respect and was interested in all of his students."

Crow demonstrates this respect and bond equally in both concert and rehearsal. "We played together quite a bit over the years," recalls cellist Brian Manker. "It was always very easy, without conflict. Jonathan is extraordinarily quick, intelligent and insightful." The violinist probably would have lightly blushed after such a compliment or he might have just grabbed his instrument. After all, words fly away, music remains. n

[Translation by Rebecca Anne Clark]

The New Orford Quartet

Jonathan Crow has an especially busy summer with concerts in Colorado, Victoria, Lachine, and Calgary, and also coachings with the National Youth Orchestra of Canada and two weeks of courses at the Orford Arts Centre. Initiated by Davis Joachim, general director of the summer academy, the Orford Quartet will be reborn from its ashes, thanks to the combined talents of Andrew Wan (the young OSM concertmaster), Eric Nowlin (assistant principal violist of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra), Brian Manker (principal cellist of the OSM) and Jonathan Crow. Essentially centred on other projects, the quartet doesn't plan long tours, each of its members being faced with numerous professional and familial responsibilities.

During their first concert on July 25, they will play Haydn's Quartet 20 opus no. 2, Beethoven's Opus 132, and Ernest MacMillan's Quartet, "a fantastic and tragically neglected piece." They will also serve as mentors to younger quartets, to whom they will teach the basics of successful rehearsals. "Many musicians have never rehearsed together before and they don't always know how to make it work," explains Jonathan Crow. "I can tell somebody: 'I don't like the way you are playing,' and not have them run out and cry. String quartets that maintain a close relationship for 30 years are very rare and it is a tough thing to do. I think that if people could learn how to rehearse and to interact with each other in a respectful fashion, but still in a very professional way, everything would be easier. For example, Brian [Manker] is really a no-nonsense kind of guy and he is very clear with his opinions. If he doesn't like something I'm doing, we work it out. If we say, 'Let's try something else,' nobody is going to be offended."

Manker is very excited by the venture: "You get labeled, you acquire a specific role: 'Brian Manker is the principal cellist of the OSM.' The audience forgets that you are a musician first and foremost. I've been playing in quartets since I was a teenager!" He is convinced that the fact that all four musicians have similar professional lives is a strength for the group, making it unique: "Quartets can become stale. To approach it as project-related will keep it alive. We will play exciting concerts, I'm sure of it."

Works for Solo Violin: Bartók, Bach, Prokofiev and Kreisler
Jonathan Crow, violon / violin
XXI-CD 2 1668

In this recital for solo violin, Jonathan Crow gives us more than the usual Paganini/ Ysa˙e. He begins this balanced and flawlessly organized programme-in which one quickly perceives unity-with Bartók's final completed work, his Violin Sonata, written for Yehudi Menuhin. The Canadian violinist tackles it with such ease that one forgets that it has become an Everest for a number of his colleagues. Indeed, one much prefers to concentrate on his tone colours. The text always maintains a remarkable transparency, while Crow details the complementary melodic lines, as if they came from different instruments. A fluid bowing technique, impeccable pitch, and rich pallet of tones serve Bach's Partita in E major just as well, and provide an almost natural counterpart to the Bartók sonata, which itself includes a fuga and a tempo di ciaccona. In the same way, the Prokofiev Sonata, the last work for solo violin from the Russian composer, seems an extension of Bach and reminiscent of Bartók. Here also, the tone remains exceptionally ample, the articulation infallibly precise, and the music breathes with staggering ease (especially in the theme and variations).

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