Chamberfest: Music-making in the Octagon

Martin Beaver. Photo: Shane Grey

Every few year eight of Canada’s best classical musicians gather to work together forming what is surely a super group of sorts called the Octagon Ensemble.

The names involved have great careers. They have won top prizes at major events such as the Queen Elisabeth, Geneva and CBC competitions. They have had solo performances with major orchestras in Boston, Montreal, Toronto and London. There are members of the Order of Canada, JUNO Award winners. And they are principals and members of major orchestras including NACO, TSO, LSO (England). Finally they teach at important music schools such as Trinity College, Indiana University, the Colburn Conservatory, Yale and the Glenn Gould School.

Today the Octagon Ensemble features violinists Martin Beaver and Mark Fewer, violist Rivka Golani, NACO’s principal cellist Rachel Mercer and principal bassist Joel Quarrington, horn player Ken MacDonald, bassoonist Kathleen McLean and clarinetist James Campbell.

Rachel Mercer. Photo: David Leyes

Over the years since the impresario and bassoonist George Zukerman first assembled a version of Octagon, people have moved in and out of the lineup but it remains an impressive lineup.

James Campbell. Photo Andre Gagne

For an interviewer, the question is: Who to talk to?

Joel Quarrington. Photo: Fred Cattroll

Turns out Martin Beaver was available for a chat while on tour in Germany. He was the first violin in the legendary Tokyo String Quartet for many years before the ensemble stopped performing in 2013. These days, his main job is on his knowledge at the Colburn school in Los Angeles. He plays in the Montrose Trio with the cellist Clive Greensmith and the pianist Jon Kimura Parker.

“We teachers (at Colburn) are fortunate because we get some wonderful students. The Viano String Quartet that I work with won the Banff competition. The two violinists are my private students.

Mark Frewer

“A good portion of my time is teaching but we all manage to get away to do tours,” he said.

Rivka Golani

“I’m in Germany, just outside Koblenz, in a small town called Engers,  mentoring people in their early 20s and doing some string quartets which is fun. My room overlooks the Rhine and I can hear the boats day and night.”

He said he is lucky enough to do what he wants from solo recitals from time to time to the Octagon project.

“The names are substantial. We are very lucky that the level is as good as it is and everyone is a hoot to hang out with.

“Octagon is something that has been going since 1999. I started doing it in 2015 after the Tokyo String Quartet ended. The original tour included Andrew Dawes and Angele Dubeau, Jim Campbell and Rivka were there and Amanda Forsyth was part of it.

Kathleen McLean

George Zukerman called the troops to order. He’s a bassoon player and a great mover of people. Kathleen McLean, who is another bassoonist, has pulled this particular formation together.

She now teaches at Indiana University alongside James Campbell.

The classical music world in Canada is still a pretty small one and those who play a role tend to know pretty much everybody else.

Ken Macdonald

Or at least of them. Beaver, given his career, certainly knows everyone in Octagon.

“A lot of us have met at the Festival of the Sound where Jim Campbell is the artistic director. In fact before the performance in Ottawa on Nov. 24, they have been rehearsing in Parry Sound and touring around the area all the way to Sault Ste. Marie.

In the rehearsals, Beaver and his colleagues will be exploring the new work by Kevin Lau called A Drop of Light.

“It’s got great virtuosic stuff. There are a few passages I will have to sweat over a little bit.”

The Lau piece is based on a commission from Octagon with help from the Canada Council.

There is not a ton of repertoire for octet, so “that’s why we are so excited to have a new piece written. It means we aren’t just going around playing concerts but we are also  contributing to the canon.

Beaver has had the kind of career that enables a perspective on a music scene and as far as he’s concerned Canada’s doing just fine thank you very much.

“I don’t think Canada should feel like the poor cousin of the United States any more. There is a lot of really good quality music going on. The orchestras sound and there are a lot of great up and coming composers. Things are moving and shaking in Canada.

“And if the schools are an indication things are in good shape. At the Glenn Gould School in Toronto, at McGill and at uOttawa, they are producing great musicians and young people are still beating down the doors to study so something is working.”

He also believes that events such as the annual Kiwanis Music Festivals in cities across the country contribute to this development.

He knows. His victories at festivals past are on his biography.

“I did the Toronto one and in Hamilton where I lived with my parents and my brother. In Winnipeg too (where he also lived), it was very important. February was festival time and we would meet adjudicators from other parts of Canada. It’s where I met Robert Skelton who was a wonderful teacher a Western University in London, Ontario. He studied with Mr. (Josef) Gingold with whom I eventually studied. We’ve been friends for years now.

“It was very important for me as a seven year old to get up and play at the Kiwanis festival. It was important for building community and encouraging young talent.”

In Ottawa, Octagon is playing the Lau premiere along with Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major and Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche.

He is the odd man out in the Septet.

“I’m playing in Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche which is an arrangement Strauss made himself under the pseudonym Professor Rabbit Ears.

“It’s a joke name. It’s a piece I have played quite a bit over the years and recorded once for a Festival of the Sound CD. It’s fun that I’m playing it again with Jim Campbell and Joel Quarrington who recorded it with him.”

All music requires concentration and awareness of the work of your colleagues. The octet form calls for a different kind of concentration, he said.

“In an octet, you are getting on to the size of a chamber orchestra. You’ve got strings but on the other side you have a clarinet, bassoon and horn.” Mixing it all together means being aware of the difference between winds and strings.

“It’s a big operation for sure. We will sit in a semi-circle with strings on one side from the first violin to the double bass in the middle with clarinet, bassoon and horn” filling out the circle.

“An octet produces a bigger sound and you do have an opportunity to make an orchestral sound happen. There can be great moments of intimacy as well,” he said,  especially in the famous Schubert Octet.

Chamberfest presents the Octagon Ensemble
Where: Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre
When: Nov. 24 at 7:30 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.