THE FRIENDS OF CHAMBER MUSIC:
AN INTERVIEW WITH ERIC WILSON
The Friends of Chamber Music (FCM) is one of Canada’s most distinguished musical institutions. Formed in 1948 under the leadership of Dr. Ida Halpern, the organization has brought most of the great chamber ensembles of the 20th C. to Vancouver audiences, establishing the city as a truly important international center for this type of music.
Starting from a four concert season held in the ballroom of the Hotel Vancouver, FCM was able to attract a wide variety of world-class ensembles by the early 1950’s. Included were concerts by most of the now-legendary string quartets: the Amadeus, Hungarian, Griller, Budapest, Italian, Vegh and Smetana quartets. As Eric Wilson notes: ‘It was the building of the Queen Elizabeth Playhouse in 1967 that provided FCM with an ideal concert home and allowed it to it expand to its current ten concert season. Having the Playhouse (along with the Queen Elizabeth Theater) was very exciting and expanded Vancouver’s musical appetite dramatically; FCM concerts were close to being sold out for years to come.’
FCM celebrated this moment by inviting the most illustrious Russian string quartet, the Borodin String Quartet, to perform the then-completed eleven string quartets of Dimitri Shostakovich in a multi-concert series. As Mr. Wilson fondly remembers: ‘Vancouver audiences got a little surprise. Shostakovich had just completed his 12th quartet as the Borodins were leaving Russia, so they pulled it out in the final concert and gave its world premiere!’ Shostakovich’s quartet cycle has now come to be regarded as one the greatest 20th C. contributions to this genre. ‘When I tell contemporary quartets that we actually invited the Borodins for the full cycle in that (still strained cold war) setting, they cannot believe that we actually brought it off.’ It is a testimony to the sensitive way in which FCM has treated its visiting artists that the Borodin Quartet will return to play this current season, 43 years later.
Another important association from the same period was with the Beaux Arts Trio (originally Daniel Guilet, Bernard Greenhouse with pianist Menahem Pressler), eventually the most recorded piano trio in history. Over the past four decades, this trio has traversed the complete Beethoven, Brahms, and Schubert trios many times (all classic recordings on Philips). Just two years ago, Mr. Pressler and cellist Antonio Meneses performed the complete Beethoven Cello Sonatas, the recording of which was an ’editor’s choice’ in Gramophone magazine (Avie AV2103). The pianist will return this year to play the Dvorak Piano Quintet.
One can recall continuing concerts by the American quartets, Julliard and Guarneri in the 1970’s, the young Alban Berg Quartet, and later on, most distinguished appearances by the Talich and Lindsay Quartets. (The latter gave their farewell concert here only a few years ago.) One can also admire FCM’s support of two less well-known ensembles that provided very cultivated and involving performances for a number of years: the Bartok and Shostakovich Quartets.
Perhaps the greatest highlight of FCM’s programming was the decision around 1980 to sponsor both the Emerson and Takacs Quartets when they were just starting their careers. Both have turned out to be among the greatest quartets of our time. From a technical and tonal standpoint, the Emersons likely have no equal; the Takacs Beethoven Quartet cycle is widely thought to be the finest set of the past two decades. The fact that both quartets have returned to Vancouver year after year for over 30 years (they perform again this season) is quite remarkable. As Mr. Wilson explains: ‘Chamber musicians are very loyal to those who gave them their careers, but you must also remember that Vancouver is a place that top ensembles want to come. We have the highest reputation and our audiences are warm and knowledgeable. The audience is very important to an ensemble: just as we respond to the players, so they respond to us.’
FCM has many commitments to past performers but still attempts to introduce two new groups per year. But they are very selective: ‘Many young quartets are of course fabulous technically, but it sometimes takes them a while to mature and fully penetrate the spirit of the music they are playing.’ The Belcea and Szymanowski Quartets have shown great promise recently, and this year, the exciting Pavel Haas Quartet will debut.
In a world of aging and declining audiences for classical music worldwide, Mr. Wilson regrets that we have lost a ‘link’ to the youth of today, and acknowledges that this situation is especially difficult for chamber music: ‘Chamber music must always be an acquired taste since it usually reflects a composer’s deepest and most intimate experience, from great joy to all-consuming sadness. While ultimately a sublime experience, it may be challenging on first hearing.’ On the other hand, he emphasizes: ‘We are fully committed to new ‘friends’. And especially the young! Our older subscribers are so delighted when they see young people at the concerts.’ FCM does offer extreme discounts on student tickets and now is on Facebook.
For a look at this season’s program, go to www.friendsofchambermusic.ca.
Eric Wilson is a member of the Board of Directors of the Friends of Chamber Music. He came to Canada from England in 1951, and started his association with this organization in 1960. He has taken an integral role for many years in the areas of planning and programming.
© Geoffrey Newman 2010