Chamberfest: Chasing the dream with Canadian cellist Cameron Crozman

Cameron Crozman. Photo: Nikolaj Lund

Cameron Crozman has been practicing Robert Schumann’s cello concerto for years. But he’ll get to play it finally in a concert with I Musici de Montreal on Thursday night at Chamberfest.

“I have worked on it a lot and prepared it for competitions but I have never ended up playing it in a concert.

“It’s nice to be able to play it and not have to worry about making the finals of a competition.

“I feel like I have learned it three different times before and now I have learned it for a fourth time. I had to print off a new copy because my old one had so many markings on it.

Crozman said the Schumann concerto doesn’t get programmed as often as, say, ones by Dvorak and Elgar.

“As a cellist you always have the blessing and the curse of the Dvorak Concerto. It’s such a phenomenal piece, it’s great to play but you are always asked to play it.”

He believes the unique structure of the Schumann keeps it on the shelf more that it should.  “It is a very unique work. There are three movements, all attacca (strung together) with transitions between them.

“Schumann didn’t call it a concerto. He referred to it as a concert piece (Konzertstück). It is also an early example of a cyclical form of composition, for example, the first movement comes back at the end of the second.

“Because of these things it’s also a very different concerto to listen to. I’m looking forward to playing it in this version for string orchestra which was arranged by the Finnish cellist Anssi Karttunen.”

Crozman said that Schumann intended to write a string quartet arrangement for the work but his publisher nixed the idea down because he believed he couldn’t sell such a piece.

“Luckily we have had people since write the arrangements. Schumann’s music is so intimate it fits the chamber situation. I think it will be a really nice way to hear it with string orchestra.”

Crozman said that in playing the Schumann he feels more exposed in it.

“Emotionally and technically you really need to be on top of things.”

About six years ago, a young Crozman was playing with the National Youth Orchestra and in an interview he indicated his hope for a career as a concert soloist.

Now that he is living the dream, he said, “that’s what I wanted to do. I feel very fortunate now, six years later, to have sort of been able to find my way into the life of a concert soloist. It is not a given.

“The reality is that I love all types of playing. I do love playing in an orchestra. If someone asked me to join a symphony orchestra to play Mahler I’d do it in a heartbeat.

“What I find most interesting is a close interaction with other musicians, so chamber music and things like that are also a passion. I just feel as a younger musician there are a lot of chances to play with more experienced musicians.”

That is certainly the case in his concert with I Musici.

Crozman was born in Calgary, Alberta and moved with his parents to London, Ontario when he was 11.

His mother is a flute player and she was a music professor at University of Calgary for 20 years. His father played violin and viola but professionally he is on the business side of the music business organizing tours to Europe for choir groups and other interested in the history of music.

Crozman started playing at seven. He said he wanted to try the double bass, because it was big … what seven year old wouldn’t want the biggest instrument. But he settled for the cello.

“I am glad the cello worked out because I think it’s the best. What I love about it is that we cellists get to wear all the masks. We get to be the bass line, or we can be a middle voice or we can be the top line. There aren’t a lot of other instruments that can do that.”

For the past three years he has played a pretty special cello  the 1696 Bonjour Stradivari cello worth about $12 million. It’s on loan from the Canada Council’s Music Bank. It is named after the 19th century French cellist Abel Bonjour.

His concert in Ottawa just might be the last public performance he will give with this instrument. He’ll be returning it on Aug. 15.

Just having something that precious in your hands will focus the mind.

For Crozman, “the word for me is treat it with respect. For the first couple of months, there was a lot of caution and worry. There is a real cognitive dissonance because you are playing on a cello, it’s the same shape as other cellos, but it’s worth millions of dollars.

“When I started driving I was so worried I was going to crash the car. Now I get into the car and don’t even think about it. You still have respect for the object and in the case of the Strad I have great respect for the historical value.”

He has built a routine around the care and feeding of the cello and things have worked out.

“I know it has a great sound, but what is so difficult to quantify, is, is it better than another instrument? I think there is a lot of complexity in the sound of the instrument.

“It doesn’t sound like a typical Strad cello. This cello has a lot of timbre in the sound; it has a very full-bodied sound. A lot of Strads might be lighter in tone.”

Probably the most jaw-dropping aspect of this particular instrument was that it was cut down in size in the 19th century. This was done then to fit a 19th century view of what a cello ought to look like.

“Because it has been transformed over the years I feel it is appropriate for all forms of music … for Schumann as well as for Bach.” And even contemporary music, something to which Crozman has devoted much playing time.

He has commissioned works, even at his young age, including from Ottawa’s Kelly-Marie Murphy.

Crozman was turned onto contemporary classical by a teacher and that commitment crystallized in Paris when he studied at the Conservatory.

“When I got to Paris I started playing contemporary music in earnest. I feel I started with contemporary music as a soloist. Now I’m playing standard repertoire. Contemporary music is just part of what I do. I can’t imagine not doing it.”

He does have contemporary music that he favours including spectralism pieces. And he really likes music from Canada, especially the work of Calgary composer Allan Gordon Bell.

“This new generation of Canadian composers has let themselves open up a lot.

“In 1970s, there was a week of Canadian music put on in Paris and London at Canadian cultural centres. One of the critics who attended said that what was interesting about Canada and Canadian music was that anything was possible.

“Because we are a younger country and our culture is younger, you can have composers writing post Romantic music and others writing very complex forms. I’m stoked that the range of what we can get here is incredible.”

Crozman is part of a group of emerging cello stars coming out of Canada including Ottawa’s Bryan Cheng and Quebec’s Stephane Tetreault.

“It’s super encouraging to have such great colleagues. It means more people are hearing great cello playing.”

Now that his studies in Paris are finally over after six years, during which he picked up two Master’s degrees and a diploma in contemporary music, he said he will be spending more time in North America where he hopes he will be able to continue solo work and mix in chamber music. He loves both, although “it’s easier to make your own artistic decisions when you are the only one playing.”

I Musici de Montreal with Cameron Crozman
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: Aug. 9 at 7 p.m.
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.