Beethoven’s string quartets — all 16 — brought to life at Chamberfest in May and June

Lovely and brilliant, varied, and innovative pieces for smaller ensembles by Ludwig van Beethoven are the focus of this year’s Montreal Chamber Music Festival.

Curated by cellist Dennis Brott, the festival begins in May and features huge musical talents who can be expected to demonstrate why “genius” and Beethoven have become synonymous.

There also are two jazz concerts planned, two performances by the Israeli Chamber Project, two chances to hear the piano virtuoso Jan Lisiecki, and Celtic music with fiddler Natalie MacMaster.

The highlight is the performance of all 16 of Beethoven’s string quartets in six concerts by the American Dover Quartet, considered the younger ensemble in the chamber music circuit and recent winners of the prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant – a top prize in classical music.

To kick things off, the opening concert on May 6 features Brott, violinist Andrew Wan (Montreal Symphony Orchestra’s concertmaster), and pianist Alon Goldstein, playing three gorgeous pieces – Beethoven’s Spring Sonata, Sonata for cello and piano No. 3 in A major, and his Ghost Trio, opus 70, No. 1. It’s at the intimate Desmarais Hall of the Canadian Centre for Architecture.

In between the pieces and even the movements, CBC broadcaster Eric Friesen and entrepreneur Daniele Henkel will read excerpts from Beethoven’s letters and diary.

Says Brott: “For me this is a like a magic door, a magic entry point: When you read what the composer was feeling or thinking, or what was going on in his life at the time, all of a sudden it puts a context that the listener can immediately identify.”

For example, Beethoven’s famous “immortal beloved” letter of 1812 where he talks about the frustration of love and his loneliness will be read after the second movement of one of the pieces.

The follow-up is a musical reflection on the life of Casanova May 10 at Pollack Hall of McGill University with famous baroque pieces played by the Ensemble Caprice, and featuring German baritone Michael Volle and Montreal based soprano Sharon Azrieli. Ensemble director Matthias Maute narrates and conducts, with selections from such works as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Marriage of Figaro and Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice.

To prepare for the quartets, concert-goers can enrol in a six-part lecture series, one in English and one in French, to track Beethoven’s personal and musical evolution at a time of tremendous social, political, and artistic change. Lecturers include musicologist Richard Turp, master teacher Raffi Armenian, and Brott. There are only 40 places for the series in each language group. The quartets, considered among the greatest works ever composed, will be played over three weekends at Pollack Hall, McGill University, with a mix of the early, middle, and late periods in each concert.

The idea to have the Dover play the full cycle goes back to 2013 when Brott heard the group play at Banff, where they won the prestigious Banff International String Quartet competition.

“I was at their performances and totally blown away by their playing – I thought them to be the best quartet of the younger generation, period.”

“I wanted to do, not just another concert, but create an experience that would be intellectually and musically stimulating.”

“Beethoven represents the transition from the classical to the romantic period in music, and all that goes along with it, from the French Revolution, the Emancipation of humankind, the move from the feudal to an enterprise system, with individual thought and spirit.

“Beethoven was a champion of individual rights, he did not want to be subservient to a court or to a church, as opposed to his predecessors, Haydn, Mozart, and Bach.

“His music through his quartets chronicles his life, leading up to his late quartets, considered among the greatest pieces of chamber music ever written.”

Before each concert, the musicians will interact with Richard Turp and show the audience the thematic elements to listen for by playing excerpts.

“It will open people’s eyes and ears to the purpose and meaning behind the pieces,” Brott says.

On June 8, last year’s winners at the Banff, the Canadian Rolston String Quartet, will share the bill with the Dover and cap their concert playing jointly Mendelsohn’s magnificent Octet in E flat major, opus 20, written when he was 16.

They open with the Quebec premiere of a new work, and continue with Beethoven’s Viola Quintet.

The Israeli Chamber Music Project has two varied programs planned, the first featuring the wonderful Brahms Quintet for Piano in F Minor, Opus 34 on June 13 and on June 15, pianists Yoav Talmi and Alon Goldstein play Dvořák pieces for two pianos, followed by the lovely Dvořák Quintet for piano and strings, no. 2, Opus 8. They are at Pollack Hall.

Two concerts, on June 14 and 16, shine the spotlight on piano prodigy Jan Lisiecki, recently signed by Deutsche Grammophon, who will play Bach, Beethoven, a Chopin sonata with cellist Brott in the first concert, and in the second the Beethoven Concerto for piano No. 4 in G Major, Opus 58, arranged for piano and string quintet by Franz Lachner.

The final classical concert June 18 will present winners of the Music instrument bank of the Canada Council for the Arts competition, in a matinée where they will play Mahler’s arrangement of Beethoven Quartet Opus 95, the ever popular Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saëns, with Julie Payette narrating, and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.

On the jazz side, on June 3 alto sax master Rémi Bolduc presents a tribute to pianist George Shearing, with Pat Labarbera (tenor sax), François Bourassa (piano), Neil Swainson (bass) and Rich Irwin (drums), at Bourgie Hall, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

On June 10, Canadian-Hungarian pianist Robi Botos displays his swing and gypsy roots, with bassist Mike Downes and drummer Larnell Lewis, at Bourgie Hall.

The non-classical series ends June 17 with Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster strutting her stuff at Bourgie Hall.

Free concerts by winners of the instrument bank are planned for June 10 and 17 at 10:30 a.m., lobby of Tanna Schulich Hall, McGill University. or 514-489-7444

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