Mark Fewer: Music in the "Now"


(Blog post by Chris Maskell)

Violinist Mark Fewer is well-known for his ability to fit seamlessly into a variety of musical situations, from harpsichord duets to Juno-winning jazz albums. This Friday, December 1, Montreal audiences will be able to hear him in yet another setting as he appears as the soloist on Ligeti’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra along with the McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble. We spoke to Fewer in a recent email exchange to learn more about this upcoming performance.


What appeals to you most about performing more contemporary works like Ligeti’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra as opposed to other pieces in your repertoire?

The Ligeti Concerto stands out as a particular challenge for violinists, and also for other members inside the ensemble. It’s a language that isn’t familiar to many, but the impact of the music can be powerful (even thrilling or overwhelming at times), and to try and bring that beauty to the listener is what we’re all here for as interpreters. It’s what we’re here for as a performance school.

What unique challenges (and benefits) does this piece offer for both the soloist and the rest of the ensemble? Did Ligeti leave any performance notes that helped your prepare?

The music is texturally beautiful in ways that are difficult to describe. If one looks at just the notes, the complexity can be overwhelming. At times, however, the overall gesture is what Ligeti is after. Precise articulations, rhythmically precise entrances and exits by all performers – these are incredibly important to his music, along with timbre and colour. But perhaps the most amazing thing to me is his ability to set up an expectation in the listener’s ear and then deviate from that expectation in entirely novel and (at times) unimaginable ways. There are some ideas on the page left by Ligeti such as “with fear, as if screaming.” You don’t see that every day! He also wrote a cadenza in the piece, but encourages the soloist to write their own (which I have), giving an indication of overall arc to be followed as his only real instruction.

Are there specific moments in the concerto that the audience should look out for?

The first movement is filled with the expectation/deviation idea that I mentioned earlier. It only lasts a few minutes, but there are more notes in the first movement than there are in the entire 20 minutes of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Concerto. The cadenza is of course a feature, but also within the ensemble some unusual instruments are used – specifically ocarinas (think unusual flute sounds bordering on high pitched sea conches).

Why do you think it’s important for people to be exposed to a wide variety of music, such as more contemporary pieces?

This might sound odd coming from someone who just released a double CD of J. S. Bach (the complete Sonatas for Violin and Harpsichord Obbligato with fellow Schulich professor Hank Knox), but I think it’s one of our primary responsibilities as musicians of today to be investing ourselves in new music. The Ligeti Concerto is almost 30 years old, yet we still consider it as “new” – such is the speed at which our society digests music these days.

Much more important, however, is the way in which all music is interpreted. Something we often fail at as classical musicians is bringing music to the space we’re in during the moment we’re playing it. We spend so much time learning “how to,” that we often never get past the “how to” to the “how now?” It’s a function of the deep listening that some classical musicians are amazing at (like my former colleagues in the St. Lawrence String Quartet – they play in “the now” as a great jazz combo does), and others fail to reach this point. If we reach a day in the not-too-distant future where there is a collective nostalgia for the Ligeti Concerto (the same way our society has a collective nostalgic need for Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, or Handel’s Messiah), then I’d say we’re getting somewhere!

Hear Mark Fewer perform with the McGill Contemporary Music Ensemble on Friday, December 1, at 7:30 p.m. in Pollack Hall. Tickets are available for purchase here.