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Ambitious Schafer concert holds audience spellbound

The Vancouver Sun

by Christopher Dafoe

At first glance, the notion of hearing all seven of R. Murray Schafer’s string quartets at a single performance might seem a trifle daunting, even to those of us who have long admired the work of this brilliant and innovative Canadian composer.

After all, how much good music can the human mind absorb at a single sitting, even allowing for lunch and tea breaks? The human bottom alone tends to shrink from such a severe test.

As it turned out, there was nothing at all to fear. These splendid works are so packed with such interesting innovation, such dazzling pyrotechnic displays, such curious and fascinating insights and ideas – not to mention music of ravishing brilliance and beauty – that the hours seem to dance along and a day shrinks into an all-too-brief hour as you sit, listen and marvel.

It should be noted that Schafer himself, as far back as 1970, thought that even a single string quartet by him would be one string quartet too many. The medium seemed to him to be “old-fashioned and worked out.”

Nevertheless, he undertook a commission from Vancouver’s Purcell Quartet and discovered that the string quartet did offer opportunities for innovation and discovery. He quickly wrote his first quartet and over the years has returned often to the form, completing his most recent in 1998.

In a sense, the seven quartets can be seen as parts of an extended single work. Hearing them in a single day, you can detect the evolution and working out of the initial idea. Later works hark back to material and ideas in earlier compositions and some actually begin where a previous work ended. The quartets, in fact, are a kind of dance to the music of time that give us a vivid glimpse of the evolution of a remarkable musical sensibility over a period of many years.

Apart from their attraction as music and their relationship to the natural world, the quartets are of interest because of Schafer’s penchant for doing interesting and innovative things with sound and the positioning of instruments to provide dramatic effect and aural variety.

The musicians have been released from their chairs and the formal traditions of performance. Sound instead comes to us from a variety of locations, near and far, as it does in the natural world. The members of the audience cease to be passive listeners and became, in a way, participants in the performance.

We can be grateful to the organizers of Festival Vancouver for including an event of this nature on their program. It is unlikely, after all, that the seven quartets will often be performed together in the future. Our world is not that well-ordered, and the audience for such experiments is, unfortunately, not large.

It is unlikely, as well, that all seven will be performed in the presence of the composer, as they were Wednesday. Schafer gave useful and interesting introductions to each work and made himself available to audience members during the breaks. This, in short, was one of those musical events that many dream about but few actually have the good fortune to attend. Those who were there, I suspect, will never forget it.

All seven quartets received stunning performances by the participating musicians, including the Molinari Quartet, the Penderecki String Quartet, the St. Lawrence String Quartet and soprano Marie-Danielle Parent, as well as Tai Chi dancers John Lad and Cathleen Chou. It was a day in which, for a few hours, the musical universe seemed to stand in perfect balance.

Fri Aug 4, 2000