Musica Camerata Montreal is an exceptional ensemble. Founded in 1971, it has been performing lesser-known chamber works and pioneering the music of Canadian composers. In anticipation of Camerata’s 50th season, we spoke to violinist and artistic director Luis Grinhauz and his wife, pianist Berta Rosenohl.
How did you meet?
LG: I was 19 years old, new to Buenos Aires, and a friend of mine wanted to introduce a lovely pianist to me named Berta. But I seemed to be too busy with violin practice (laughs). A little bit later, after one particular concert, we finally met, and I asked her to accompany me for a competition I was preparing for. At the first rehearsal, she sight-read the first movement of the Khachaturian Violin Concerto better than I – who had been practising it for six months! And we ended up winning.
How quickly did your duo become a long-time project?
BR: We were able to win various competitions after that one. And often the prizes included playing concerts. Therefore, soon after its inception, our duo started performing a lot.
Why did you move from Argentina?
LG: We both won the full scholarships to Indiana University. I studied in the class of Josef Gingold (1909-1995) and Berta’s teacher was Alfonso Montecino (1924-2015).
BR: Our son was only two-and-a-half years old when we moved. We had no help, so I remember bringing him to my chamber music lessons with Janos Starker (1924-2013) for the first time. Professor Starker, surprised at my request to have a baby in the classroom, replied: “One sound – and you go behind the door!” So, I gave my son plenty of toys, books to read. He was no trouble.
LG: And a few years later, our son became a student of Starker.
BR: We also used to bring him to Luis’s lessons with Professor Gingold. The latter was quite welcoming and gave our son pencil sharpeners to play with during the lessons.
LG: The OSM was hiring. Its conductor at the time, Franz-Paul Decker (1923–2014), seemed to be hard to please. To my surprise, I won a post in the first violin section. By 1975, I moved up to the first stand. [Grinhauz was assistant concertmaster for nearly 45 years.]
BR: I was not surprised. Luis was fresh out of school, practicing eight hours a day.
LG: And after the audition, the conductor offered me a $20 raise on my initial salary!
How did Musica Camerata come into the picture?
LG: Upon our installation in Canada, we were introduced to Hans Nemenoff, a German businessman and keen music lover. He invited us to play in his house concerts. At the time, there were only two chamber music series [in Montreal]: Pro Musica and the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club. Hans’s series became very popular and received important grants from Ottawa at that time.
BR: Hans went to Ottawa to officially thank the organizations for their support. Right in the middle of his speech, he fainted, fell down and died. His wife, after running the series for a couple of seasons, decided to stop. It became too difficult for her. This is when we stepped in to take care of the organizational part as well.
Camerata is known for performing neglected music as well as music by Canadian composers. How did you come up with this mission?
LG: From the beginning, that was a mandate of Camerata. You see, classical chamber musicians rotate around the same standard repertoire, by Mozart, Brahms, Haydn and so on. These are great, but there are pieces by Frank Bridge (1879–1941) and Ildebrando Pizetti (1880-1968) that are absolutely gorgeous.
BR: We used to go to the Canadian Music Centre, which has a vast library. We took out a lot of scores and sight-read them in order to choose the repertoire for our series.
Did you feel you were taking a risk when playing the unknown music?
LG: Not to sound arrogant, but with time we realized that if we liked the repertoire, the public would to follow us.
Were there failures?
LG: Yes. Once, a friend of ours, the French conductor Michel Plasson (b. 1933) suggested to us a quintet written by a Debussy contemporary, Albéric Magnard (1865-1914). So, we ordered the score…
BR: …and we almost divorced on account of this piece! (laughs) We never played it.
What is the key to good chamber music playing?
LG: First of all, good communication and empathy between the players. All our colleagues are amazing. [Other regular players are Van Armenian, violin; Victor Fournelle-Blain, Sofia Gentile viola; Sylvain Murray, Bruno Tobon and Léo Grinhauz, cellos; and Eric Abramovitz, clarinet.] We are always prepared and ready to work hard.
If there was only one recording you could be remembered for, what would that be?
BR: Maybe Chausson’s Concert Op. 21. Or Taneyev’s Piano Quintet Op. 30, an incredible piece.
Musica Camerata Montreal opens its 50th season on Sept. 7 at 6 p.m. at the Chapelle historique du Bon Pasteur. The program, dedicated to music for the clarinet, includes works by Max Bruch, Carlos Guastavino, Juan Carlos Cirigliano and Bernard Herrmann. www.cameratamontreal.com