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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

Improvising classical musicians a rare treat in Ron Davis’s Symphronica

By Margaret Lam on October 27, 2013

Symphronica_string_quartet

What does it take to pull together an improvising string quartet? From what I’ve learned sitting in on the rehearsals for Ron Davis’s three Symphronica concerts at Lula Lounge — the first of which took place Sunday evening — it takes a combination of serious musicianship, affinity for different musical traditions, and an open collaborative spirit.

Margaret Lam

Margaret Lam is the founder of BeMused Network, a social-technical enterprise helping artists do more with less, starting with an artist-friendly and patron-focused ticketing service. She is also a published information science researcher, a seasoned print and digital designer, and an advocate for independent and emerging artists. Her writing focuses on the intersection of culture, technology and the arts.

The four members of Ron Davis’s Symphronica string quartet — George Meanwell on cello, Anna Atkinson on viola, Jessica Deutsch and Ben Plotnick on violin — tell a story.

Jessica Deutsch is a three-time finalist in the Canadian Music Competition who first took her classical training into the eclectic world of folk music. During a trip to Barcelona, she became immersed in the jazz scene and returned to study under the classical-jazz violinist Drew Jurecka at Humber College.

Her counterpart in the quartet, Ben Plotnick, is also classically trained, but fiddle is his first love. His musical interests extend to a variety of popular and world music, and he is a composer, arranger and producer of folk, classical, world and popular genres.

Deutsch acknowledges that while having an improvising string quartet in performance with a jazz quartet is rare — classical musicians usually play from a score — it isn’t a new phenomenon.

She mentions the Turtle Island String Quartet as being one of the first to play fiddle and jazz music with the well-honed musicianship of chamber music.

“It takes musicians who have a very involved classical background, with a mastery of individual and ensemble playing, and a devotion to the improvising traditions.” Echoed Plotnick in a different conversation, “Playing in tune and in sync [while improvising] is no easy matter.”

Deutsch’s created her own violin-cello performing duo, Ozere, in order to pursue a cross-genre aesthetic without having to ‘choose’ one musical tradition over another. “It’s really nice to have the opportunity to perform as an improvising classical musician.” (Oreze is now a 5-piece with violin, cello, mandolin, bass and vocals.)

Songwriters and multi-instrumentalists Meanwell and Atkinson are familiar names within the classical world. Meanwell was the founding member of Canada’s award-winning Quartetto Gelato, and Atkinson’s album is often heard on CBC Radio’s As It Happens and The Signal. Both perform at the Stratford Festival, and are involved in a variety of musical projects.

Classically-trained musicians taking their careers to include other musical genres is not new nor surprising, and I suspect this is increasing a reality for emerging classical performers who are not finding as many work opportunities as they would like.

Such performers work in some of the most interesting and creative spaces, and their years of classical training makes them some of the best musicians to work with in the industry. However, their work is not always well recognized by classical audiences (there are exceptions, such as violinist Edwin Huizinga), even though they are among our best ambassadors of classical music to a new and untapped audience.

“Audiences of classical musicians appreciate a change of setting too,” said Deutsch when asked whether she has observed a crossover of audiences, “and some do come out to hear their well-loved music and non-classical music in a different setting as performed by classical musicians.”

Watching Ron Davis’s eight-piece ensemble in rehearsal highlighted for me the amount of talent and artistry that can be overlooked within our own city.

It was exciting to watch jazz and classical musicians working closely with each other, assigning solos, working out cues, and performing original tunes by Davis filled with musical idioms drawn from a variety of musical traditions.

Ron Davis is embarking on an ambitious musical project to infect audiences with his passion for Canadian-grown talent, and bringing artists and audiences together in creative solidarity.

There are two Sunday night shows remaining at Lula Lounge, with sets at 8 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. to check out this improvising string quartet in ensemble with a superb jazz quartet, and special guest Helen Donnelley who will be contributing her Cirque du Soleil style of theatre to parts of the show.

For more information about Symphronica, visit www.symphronica.com.

Tickets are $20 at the door or online at www.symphronica.com/tickets. Make table reservations at Lula to guarantee seating. $1 of each ticket goes towards Unions Benevolent Fund to help members of the Canadian music community who are facing personal or professional challenges.

 Margaret Lam
is founder of the BeMused Network

Margaret Lam

Margaret Lam is the founder of BeMused Network, a social-technical enterprise helping artists do more with less, starting with an artist-friendly and patron-focused ticketing service. She is also a published information science researcher, a seasoned print and digital designer, and an advocate for independent and emerging artists. Her writing focuses on the intersection of culture, technology and the arts.
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