"While we love bringing to life masterpieces from past eras, the string quartet is a medium that is very much alive," reflects violinist Sarah Nematallah, underscoring the Cecilia String Quartet's commitment to new music. "We want to welcome young composers to bring their ideas to life through the string quartet in the 21st century."
When it comes to engaging with the music of their time, the members of the CSQ don't just talk the talk.
We spoke with them in early September, not long after they premiered the fourth and final piece in their Celebrating Canadian Women in Music project: Taxonomy of Paper Wings by Emilie LeBel. They'll play the work a few more times this season, including a performance at Walter Hall in Toronto on Sunday, Sept. 25, as part of Mooredale Concerts. The three earlier pieces they commissioned in this series were by Nicole Lizée, Kati Agócs and Katarina Curcin.
"It feels like the first leg of a marathon is over," says CSQ cellist Rachel Desoer. "The commissioning process is such a tremendous amount of work. Finding composers, finding funds and finding time to work with everyone has taken the best part of two years. Now, the next part of the marathon begins. We have the notes under our belts but over the course of the next year we’ll really be internalizing these works leading up to a performance of all four [pieces] at [the Royal Conservatory of Music’s] 21C Music Festival and a recording."
The ultimate test for any composer
On top of its Celebrating Canadian Women in Music project, the CSQ is also central to an annual student string quartet composition competition at the University of Toronto's Faculty of Music, part of its role as James D. Stewart quartet in residence. "It’s crucial for composers to have a platform where they can be inspired and experiment ... especially since writing for a string quartet has always been the ultimate test for any composer," explains CSQ violinist Min-Jeong Koh, who describes how one new work took her out of her comfort zone.
"For Patrick McGraw’s Glass, I had a bottle solo, and it was more difficult than I had imagined. I remember lining up different types of empty bottles, mostly liquor, to find the perfect timbre and then practising so I could have absolute control and unwavering pitch. In the end, I was nowhere near being a bottle virtuoso — Caitlin [Boyle] is, but that’s another story — but the mélange of sounds in the piece we created was special and something I hadn’t experienced before."
Playing bottles is just one unusual technique demanded by today's emerging composers. What other trends have the members of the CSQ observed?
"Foot-stomping while wearing fashionable shoes!" exclaims Koh. "Although all very different, three of the pieces we’ve commissioned had stomping: 2010 BISQC-commissioned piece by Ana Sokolovic, Nicole Lizée’s Isabella Blow at Somerset House and Abigail Richardson’s Kitchen Ceilidh."
"There is an incredible variety of styles in today’s young composers," adds Nematallah. "When reading the competition entries, we find it difficult to choose a winner because [a] composer’s voice is so distinct — it’s often like comparing apples to oranges!"
In case you get the impression the CSQ is neglecting the classics, think again. Their 2015 all-Mendelssohn album on Analekta was one of the top Canadian classical releases of 2015. "I’d like to think that people are rediscovering Mendelssohn these days," says Nematallah. "In the past I’ve heard Mendelssohn referred to as a plain and predictable composer, but I think when [they're] played well, people can see that his works [are] incredibly vibrant and profoundly emotional, and their love of his music is reignited."
Violist Caitlin Boyle says choosing repertoire for the quartet is a fluid process. "We let each other know what pieces are on our 'wish list' and we try to incorporate these pieces into our programs. The quartet repertoire is filled with so many incredible works of art that we have yet to run out of pieces that we look forward to learning and performing. Typically, to build a program, we choose pieces that contrast each other in a complementary way. We also build programs around themes so that the audience comes on a journey with us throughout the whole program."
The journey sounds enticing, but maybe also a bit daunting for anybody new to chamber music. Desoer's tip? Go indie-classical. "I’d say find ... a small space like a living room or a bar (preferrably with good acoustics.) I think the most relatable element of what we do is the conversational aspect. If you’re close enough to hear and see the interplay it’s much more exciting and a way to get some of the music into your system."
Catch the Cecilia String Quartet in concert on Sunday, Sept. 25, at 3:15 p.m. at Walter Hall in Toronto. Consult their upcoming concert calendar here.