MISQA Spells Tradition by John Delva
/ September 1, 2012
Flash version here.
In its third year, the McGill International String Quartet Academy unites some of the foremost young string quartets from around the world to hone their skills through the guidance of experienced chamber musicians and concert performances. For its director, André J. Roy, the oral tradition—the sharing of knowledge between teacher and student—is one of the academy’s main focuses. This is not surprising seeing how many who have met the viola teacher highlight his affability. With prestigious faculty that includes Gerard Schultz and Günter Pichler of the Alban Berg Quartet, Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet, Paul Katz of the Cleveland Quartet, as well as the Endellion String Quartet, participants are not short on mentors. I sat down with Mr. Roy and discussed the attention the academy has received, and how string quartets are similar to the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
LSM: The academy has really taken off since its inception in 2010. How did it come about?
André J. Roy: It’s about people coming together. The Cecilia String Quartet called me and asked if I’d consider being their coach. I was in touch with one of our great benefactors here, Constance Pathy, and she helped the Cecilia Quartet join McGill. She was very interested in founding an academy or something of the sort here in Montreal, but there we were in April and the professors I was looking for were booked two or three years in advance—they’re big names. I was organizing the academy in May and June to be ready in August. It was absurd! I had a long conversation with Gerhard [Schulz], explaining what we wanted to do with the academy and he saw it as a place to grow and develop the next generation of string quartets. I was very lucky he accepted to do a few days that first year.
The academy’s rapid expansion attests to its increasing success over the years. When did you know you had something special?
AJR: So we did the first academy. The Cecilia and I went to the Banff competition and, as if from a movie script, they went on to win first prize. It sparked interest from a lot of people asking, “Who are these guys in Montreal?”
What does the academy consider when selecting its participants?
AJR: Senior groups must be involved in the international scene, while the junior ones are quartets that will eventually be selected for international competitions.
And how do you go about choosing professors?
AJR: You know who’s out there, then you talk to people a year or two in advance. We have [amongst eight professors] the two violinists from the Alban Berg Quartet and the cellist of the Cleveland Quartet: monumental quartets and musicians. They have all trained quartets who have won international competitions and are extremely devoted to teaching.
What does a typical workshop look like?
AJR: In the mornings, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., we have private coaching sessions. I always try to have two violinists, a violist and a cellist at least present during that week—if you have someone who has made a career at being a second violinist, they will know everything in the repertoire inside out. Then, from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., one of the teachers will give a master class. The rest of the time [participants] practice individually and with their quartet.
What goals does the MISQA set for its participants?
AJR: I want them to be in contact with the best practitioners out there. This is very much an oral tradition, which you can link to Beethoven and Shostakovich who have worked with string quartets. I also wanted this program to be the image of Montreal: We always hear Montreal’s a good mix between Europe and North America. I wanted people from Europe to benefit from what we do here and vice versa.
What kinds of challenges do performers encounter in string quartet writing?
AJR: Look at [the] Los Angeles [Kings] this year: Nobody expected them to do anything because they’re a young team, but with a good coach and group synergy, they were able to win the cup. They don’t have the best players, but they have an amazing team ethic. Same with string quartets: Each quartet has its own signature sound. There’s a lot of giving involved and it’s not about your own sound anymore. Your sound has to be part of a collective one, and that’s the hardest thing to develop.
Most people are aware of the big name composers who contributed to the evolution of the string quartet genre, such as Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. Do you think there’s a composer of string quartets out there who isn’t given his or her fair due?
AJR: Thomas Adès is an amazing composer. For the performers, putting it together is a nightmare! Once a quartet embarks on a career, the chamber music series that will offer them an opportunity will want to include Haydn, Bartók, Shostakovich, and so on. Once in a while they’ll accept a modern piece, but not too often. String quartets have a repertoire they can offer during a given season, so if you’re to spend half of your time learning a new piece—to be really good and keep being in demand—you have to make sure you’ll be able to program it. For me, Adès or Wolfgang Rihm are not played enough, but they will be in the future when quartets have learned their repertoire. Every competition has a living composer write a piece, which is a way of having young quartets learn new music.
The MISQA runs from August 12 to 25.