Chamberfest: Jean-Marie Zeitouni finds his musical family with I Musici de Montreal

I Musici de Montreal

Jean-Marie Zeitouni took over as the artistic director of I Musici de Montreal almost seven years ago.

He replaced the founder Yuli Turovsky, who had retired and then passed away in January 2013

“I Musici kept him alive a little bit longer. It’s heartbreaking but he wasn’t able to take care of it any more.”

Zeitouni was a natural replacement. In fact he was the favoured choice of many of the musicians in the small string orchestra.

“I had conducted the ensemble before and all of them had worked with me in different situations.

Zeitouni had worked with a smaller group in the past. he had spent about a dozen years with another importat Quebec ensemble Les Violins du Roy where he had opened up that ensemble to a wider repertoire of 20th century pieces by Britten, Bartok and Piazzolla. along with many of the Romantic composers.

He said he was approached about the I Musici post by the board.

“They called off their search” and hired him.

“I was happy to take the job. It’s an outstanding group. At the time I was working in Columbus, Ohio, with the orchestra there and I was with Violins du Roy as principal guest conductor.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni

After 12 years with that organization, Zeitouni had run out of challenges. And because his friend Bernard Labadie, the music director, was not moving on “I knew the future was not there for me. I was looking for something with a little more continuity, with a chance to build something. So I accepted the I Musici job and I’ve been very happy ever since.”

But replacing Turovsky was a unique challenge, he said.

“He was the founder and the father figure. He was the creator of the ensemble. The musicians were his former students, so when he retired and then  passed away, there was a mourning period.

“I had inherited this beautiful family and I had to accompany them through the loss of the founder and to establish a new relationship.” He wanted that to be more of a brother and sisterhood and not a father-children relationship.

“I am the music director and I have responsibilities for the long term direction of the group.” But he wanted the relationship to be more equal.

On the side Zeitouni gives lectures on working with a group of specialists. He believes management succeeds when it works from the  bottom up.

He was lucky that the members of I Musici are very committed to their work.

“They have ownership of their group. It’s not me versus them There is none of this. Everybody is in the same boat, working for the success of the group.

“At end of rehearsals I have to tell them it’s over. They often want to keep going because they want to work more. This is rare in an orchestra.

“You have to respect the knowledge of the orchestra musicians. They have ideas. They need room to express themselves. I’m the guardian of unity and coherence.”

I Musici is made up of three groups of people: those who were there on Day 1 in 1983; a second set of folks who have been with the ensemble for about 25 years and then a group that he has hired.

Under Turovsky, the ensemble started with Baroque music but over time it moved into the Russian school with pieces by Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky. They also explored South American composers such as A lot of the Russian school connected to the maestro’s roots. Also South American music such as Hector Villa-Lobos and Astor Piazzolla.

Zeitouni waned to expend the repertoire a bit, but he also wanted to move beyond what had become known as the I Musici style of playing that was applied to music from any era.

“I wanted them to play different styles with great expertise. When we play French Baroque I want us to sound like experts in that. I wanted us to become multi-specialists and deepen our knowledge and our palette of expression.”

Has it worked?

“This spring I was on a trip to Europe. I had time away and decided to listen to, at least a part of every concert we have performed in past seven years. I brought some hard drives with me and started listening. I was able to hear the progress and refinement happening in every style.

“I’m not criticizing what came before. On the contrary (Yuli Turovsky) built such a solid foundation.” There are some things that Zeitouni says he won’t change because he can’t improve upon it. This is especially true with works from the Russian school.

Another aspect of I Musici he is building upon is its dedication to Quebec composers.

“One piece that we will play in Ottawa was featured in the first ever I Musici concert.” This is the Scherzo by André Prévost.

The composer’s son, Christian Prévost, is one of the violinists in the ensemble. He has been there since 1985.

“When I started, I wanted to build a community around I Musici with some composers who would be part of the family. I wanted a community of artists and a broader community of organizations.” To that end he has started to develop relationships with choral groups, orchestras, chamber music groups and others in Montreal.

He wanted composers, such as Julian Bilodeau and Nicolas Gilbert, to see I Musici as a destination for their work.

Another, Denis Gougeon wrote a piece for the 15th anniversary of I Musici. And for the organization’s 30th anniversary Zeitouni asked Gougeon to write another.

“We are trying to ensure continuity with composers as well as musicians.”

Zeitouni likes the fact that his musicians play with a number of different organizations in Montreal from chamber quartets to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

“I Musici can’t offer them big orchestra pieces. I like it when they play that repertoire. It helps when they play smaller works by Strauss or Mahler.”

He learns when he guests with other organizations too and he brings new perspectives back to I Musici.

“This is what makes it fun and refreshing and I am never bored.”

I Musici de Montreal
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.