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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 18, No. 7

MISQA Spells Tradition

by John Delva / June 1, 2013

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In its fourth year, the McGill International String Quartet Academy (MISQA) 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 founder Constance V. Pathy and 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 this professor highlight his affability. With prestigious faculty again this year that includes Gerhard Schulz and Günter Pichler of the Alban Berg Quartet, Michael Tree of the Guarneri Quartet, Keith Robinson of the Miami Quartet, as well as the members of the Vogler String Quartet, participants are not short on mentors.

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, mainly our great founder Constance Pathy, the Cecilia String Quartet and myself. In 2010, I was working with the Cecilia Quartet whom Ms. Pathy helped join McGill for their studies. She was very interested in founding an academy here in Montreal, but there we were in April and the professors I was thinking about are usually booked two or three years in advance. I was trying to organize an international 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 full week that first year. He has been coming for the full two weeks ever since. 

The academy’s rapid expansion attests to its increasing success over the years. When did you know you had something special?

AJR: When we did the first academy. The Cecilia Quartet 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: At MISQA we have senior and junior quartets. Senior groups must be involved in the international scene (their selection at an International competition is actually a prerequisite) while the junior ones are quartets that aim to 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 violist of the Guarneri 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. We also offer recording sessions and other sessions with members of the McGill community such as sport psychologist and lawyers. 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 Haydn, 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: 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, it’s so difficult! 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.

MISQA runs from August 11 to 23. www.misqa.com

Ten of the world’s finest emerging string quartets are descending to Canada for the 11th Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC) Aug. 26 to Sept. 1.

The 2013 quartets are Anima Quartet (Russia/China), Attacca Quartet (USA), Calidore String Quartet (USA/Canada), Quatuor Cavatine (France), Dover Quartet (USA), Gémeaux Quartett (Switzerland), Linden String Quartet (USA/Canada), Navarra Quartet (UK/Ireland/The Netherlands), Noga Quartet (France/Israel) and Schumann Quartett (Germany).

Previous winners of BISQC include Canada’s St. Lawrence String Quartet, the Cecilia String Quartet and Australia’s Tinalley Quartet.

During the competition, each quartet will perform a range of repertoire in multiple performances before a dedicated audience of more than 900. Works performed will include repertoire of classical, Romantic and 20th-century music, as well as a new work by Canadian composer Vivian Fung, co-commissioned by The Banff Centre and the CBC. Three quartets are chosen on Aug. 31 to perform a work of Beethoven in the final round on Sept. 1.

First prize includes $25,000, a quartet of bows made by Canadian bow-maker François Malo, North American and European concert tours, and a creative residency at The Banff Centre, including the production of a professional recording by the centre’s audio department. This also includes the Esterházy Foundation Prize – a special performance in Haydn Hall at the Esterházy Palace in Eisenstadt, Austria. 

This year’s competition jury is made up of violist Miguel de Silva of the Ysaÿe Quartet; cellist András Fejér, founder of the Takács Quartet; violinist Kikuei Ikeda of the Tokyo String Quartet and faculty member at the Yale School of Music; violist Garth Knox, former member of the Arditti String Quartet; violinist Nicholas Kitchen, founder of the Borromeo String Quartet; cellist Richard Lester of the London Haydn Quartet; and violinist Scott St. John of the St. Lawrence String Quartet.

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