Chamberfest: Cuarteto Casals honours the tradition of string music

Cuarteto Casals is Arnau Tomas (cello), Vera Martinez (violin), Jonathan Brown (Viola) and Abel Tomas (violin).

In the fall of 2017, while many in Canada were celebrating 150 years of Confederation, the people of Catalonia were dealing with something Canadians are all too familiar with: The question of independence.

Catalan leaders, after a referendum, declared independence, The Spanish state stepped in with force. Police were sent in, people were arrested and some political leaders fled. It was a tense time.

For Jonathan Brown, it was probably the most stressful time he has ever experienced.

“I personally have never lived through anything quite like the fall of 2017. When things were at their peak, the government sent in the police. People were beaten and there were counter protests. Some politicians were jailed.

“People on all sides were consumed with it. It was draining and exhausting. We went to bed talking about it and woke up in the morning talking about it. It continues to be exhausting today, but it’s nothing like 2017.”

Brown turned to his work to provide a safe space.

His work is as the violist of the Barcelona-based string quartet known as Cuarteto Casals. The ensemble is a leading force in Spanish string music and is recognized worldwide for its talent.

“I felt our concerts at that time in Barcelona and Madrid were important. We felt the need in both cities for music, for quartets by composers such as Beethoven at that time.”

For Brown personally, “music was a relief.”

Cuarteto Casals is on a North American tour this winter. It will bring them to Ottawa on March 4 as part of the Chamberfest concert series.

They will be playing Haydn’s Opus 33, No. 3 ‘The Bird‘, Bartok’s Quartet No. 3 and, in the second half, Mendelssohn’s F minor quartet.

Brown said he believes there is a special link between the first two pieces. First there is the Austro-Hungarian connection between the composers. Traditional Hungarian music comes through in both, he added. And there is a bird-like motive that comes through in the Haydn that, in a different way, is used in the Bartok.

“I think it is very interesting to see that two composers, 175 years apart, took the same basic musical materials and used them in different languages, in very different ways.”

The Mendelssohn was written after his sister Fanny died and not long before the composer passed away.

“He was apparently heartbroken at her death and so the piece is very moving tribute to her. It’s hard to imagine anything else was on his mind at the time.”

The audience will hear the sorrow coming through in a typically Romantic way with a lot of torment and drama.

“It is a beautiful ending to Mendelssohn’s too short composing career,” Brown said.

These pieces are part of the quartets regular rep. But despite their familiarity, Brown said, playing them in Ottawa will be a welcome relief.

They have just completed a cycle of Beethoven quartets and while they love his music “it’s very refreshing for us to play Haydn after having spent so much time with one composer.”

Brown is American. He joined Cuarteto Casals in 2003 after a short two-year stay in Salzburg, Austria.

“At the end I wanted to move on. My predecessor in the quartet was just leaving so we were put together through a mutual friend. Rainer Schmidt of the Hagen Quartet recommended me to them and them to me.”

The deal was done and he joined his colleagues in Cologne where they were studying with the Alban Berg Quartett.

The next year they foursome was offered a teaching position in Barcelona and that’s where they have been ever since.

“It was a godsend for us. We had a recording contract and a manager, but it wouldn’t have been so easy to live and stay together.”

Members of string quartets often take separate teaching positions and other gigs and slowly the quartet breaks apart.

While Brown often comes home to visit family and to tour in North America, Barcelona is home.

“It isn’t that big of a city. The centre is quite limited by mountains and the sea. I’m a 15-minute walk from the famous Sangrada Familia cathedral by Gaudi.

“I feel very at home there, very comfortable. But one can never replace feeling of being an actual native. Having said that, it is a wonderful place to live. It’s on the sea. The weather is great and the people are friendly and open. I love the lifestyle and my children go to a great school.

“It is also a very affordable city compared to major North American cities. I have a quality of life that would be hard for me to maintain in an American city.”

Cuarteto Casals has had the same membership since Brown joined some 17 years ago.

“The quartet started in 1997. I joined in 2002 and that was the last change. There are few examples of quartets that have been in the same formation.”

The others members are brothers Abel (violin) and Arnau Tomas (cello) and Vera Martinez (violin).

The quartet is named in honour of the legendary Catalan cellist Pablo Casals.

“The founders took Casals’ name because of his quartet work but also because of his humanitarian work and political stands. He was a real model for the quartet musically and personally and continues to be.”

Brown said he appreciates the directness, honesty, intelligence and simplicity of Casals’ approach to music.

“All of these were, and continue to be, ideals we all aspire to.”

Cuarteto Casals is one of a small cadre of internationally known string quartets coming out of Spain.

“We were really the first ones to have an international career. There is a great tradition of singing in Spain and of wind players and guitarists. But the string tradition is not same. It’s partly for historical reasons. Because of the Franco regime, Spain was cut off from Europe until 1975 and has taken time to reconnect. In last 25 years Spanish string playing has taken a turn for the better.”

But is has taken a long time to catch up, he said.

These days, the quartet is sticking to the path.

“We are not an orchestra. We are not an institution the way an orchestra is. We play together because we want to play together. None of us feel a need for things to come to an end. We are very happy. We have worked hard to get to this point. Now we are enjoying benefits of staying together this long.”

Everything the quartet does has to be decided by all four of them. If one objects then they don’t proceed.

They even alternate the first violin chair. Abel Tomas plays music written before 1800, Vera Martinez picks up from there.

Chamberfest presents Cuarteto Casals
Where: Dominion-Chalmers United Church
When: March 4 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and information:

Share Post
Written by

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.