Super String Theory

After 25 years, the Lafayette String Quartet is making even more beautiful music together

The last place you’d expect to find the origins of an internationally acclaimed string quartet would be in a booth at McDonald’s. But that’s exactly where it all began for the Lafayette String Quartet back in 1986. “We were all in a chamber orchestra in Detroit and had this dream of becoming our own string quartet,” recalls violinist Sharon Stanis, “so we met at a McDonald’s and made the big decision.”

Not the classiest of venues, to be sure, but it’s all been up from there. Over the past 25 years, the LSQ has gone on to play concerts and festivals in all but one Canadian province (better tune in, PEI), more than half the American states, and eight countries worldwide; they’ve won major prizes, received awards for their recordings (notably 2003’s Death and the Maiden), have been the subject of a book (David Round’s The Four and the One) and still maintain a punishing touring schedule, in addition to their teaching duties as Artists-in-Residence at UVic’s School of Music.

The Lafayette String Quartet, with Sharon Stenis on the far right (photo by Frances Litman)

The Lafayette String Quartet, with Sharon Stenis on the far right (photo by Frances Litman)

They also remain the only all-female ensemble in the world to still feature the original members—which Stanis credits to their individuality. “In our earlier years, it was always the group first: ‘What’s best for the quartet?’ But the reason we’ve been successful for 25 years is that we’ve since changed the focus to, ‘What’s great for the individual?’—because if the individual is happy, then the whole quartet is happy.”

Indeed, the collective acclaim of the Lafayette String Quartet can very much be attributed to the sum of their parts: Ann Elliott Goldschmid (violin), Joanna Hood (viola) and Pamela Highbaugh Aloni (cello), as well as Stanis. And not only are the LSQ popping the cork on their silver anniversary in 2011, but they’re also simultaneously celebrating two decades at UVic. “That has provided a great foundation for us,” says Stanis. “They took a chance on a five-year-old quartet, but UVic has shown a strong commitment to us . . . I feel very fortunate to be here. Not all universities have a resident string quartet, and there’s a real mentoring by having all of the string teachers in one ensemble.”

Looking back over the achievements of the past quarter-century, it’s clear Stanis feels the lasting contribution of the Lafayette String Quartet can best be found in their students. “In music, as with other professions, you’re handing down to the next generation . . . when I first arrived here in my early 30s, I felt like I was educating people to become working violinists in symphonies—but now I feel like I’m educating people on how to live and be passionate, how to work hard to make something beautiful. That’s our job, basically; we’re not educating musicians so much as we’re educating human beings.”

While the LSQ will be celebrating with a full year of performances—including a residency at the prestigious Banff Centre, a return to Ontario’s acclaimed Festival of the Sound and a highly-anticipated Eastern Canadian tour—it all kicks off in July at the annual Victoria Summer Music Festival. But, after 25 years, are there still new pieces for them to learn? “Tons,” Stanis laughs. “For instance, Haydn wrote 83 quartets and we’ve learned maybe 25, and we only know two of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets . . . it’s hard to squeeze in new pieces when you’re juggling teaching, administration, touring, practicing and family life.” And is there an ultimate musical goal for the LSQ? “Well, we’ve already learned all 16 Beethoven quartets, which is a cornerstone for any string quartet, but I think the Shostakovich is the one that we’d all like to set our sights on—so we’ll need to put a couple in our pockets every year.”

Stanis admits it hasn’t always been easy being an all-female quartet—two of the group are mothers, which meant touring with infants, and one has survived breast cancer, which led to the ongoing annual Lafayette Health Awareness forums—but she’s clearly pleased with how the concert world has evolved. “Twenty-five years ago, it was common to have one or two women in a quartet, and there were probably only six all-female quartets—but now? They’re all over.”

Much like the distinct parts they play in their music, Stanis again emphasizes the importance of their individuality. “We’re such four different personalities but somehow the whole vive la différence has helped bind us together. We’ve had our share of big arguments, but it’s through those that we’ve come to a consensus, a respect and an honouring of each other’s opinions, lives and lifestyles.”

And did they ever expect it to last this long? “I remember us saying, ‘Let’s try two years and see how it goes.‘” She pauses and laughs again. “I don’t even know if we checked in after two years; we were too busy chasing our tails, trying to get the next concert, the next gig, practice the next piece . . . I don’t think we ever imagined it, but it happened.”

One to Watch

Thea Gill earned critical kudos for her turn as Blanche Dubois in Blue Bridge's A Streetcar Named Desire (Tim Matheson photo)

Thea Gill earned critical kudos for her turn as Blanche Dubois in Blue Bridge’s A Streetcar Named Desire (Tim Matheson photo)

Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre, helmed by Department of Theatre professor Brian Richmond, was just named one of the “Top Ten to Watch” in Douglas Magazine’s annual round-upof new Victoria businesses. Since its inception in 2008, Blue Bridge has consistently mounted award-winning professional productions of theatrical classics like Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire at the McPherson Playhouse. Not only have they breathed fresh life into the Mac’s usually quiet summer season, but Blue Bridge consistently hires UVic faculty, alumni and students for their productions.

See for details about their 2011 season.

Outside the Box

Daniel Laskarin discusses a decade of Agnostic Objects

By John Threlfall

Laskarin's "Butterfly Trap," photo by Bob Matheson

Laskarin’s “Butterfly Trap,” photo by Bob Matheson

When is a box not a box? When it’s part of a sculptural exhibit by Daniel Laskarin, of course. Laskarin, current chair of UVic’s Visual Arts department, recently wrapped up his first survey show at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Titled Agnostic Objects (things persist), Laskarin’s 10-year survey offers not only the gallery’s latest glimpse into Victoria’s burgeoning contemporary sculptural scene but also affords viewers the opportunity to reengage with contemporary art in general. But if you find yourself feeling a little baffled by some of the pieces, don’t feel bad—it’s all part of the artist’s concept.

“Laskarin has a stated interest in doubt and uncertainty, which he sees as important qualities in his work,” notes AGGV director Jon Tupper in the introduction to the 96-page, full-colour glossy catalogue for Agnostic Objects. “He believes viewers become creatively engaged when they can’t easily identify objects.” Thus, an apparently simple box becomes the basis for “Butterfly Trap,” a playful Wile E. Coyote-style piece that sets out to capture the viewer’s imagination.

“I celebrate uncertainty as a positive and creative process,” explains Laskarin. “Uncertainty, without letting it become paralyzing, is profoundly important; it’s where criticality begins, where change begins. These objects have a relationship with the outside world that is uncertain; there are little hooks, little gestures, but it’s not clear.”

What is clear, however, is the essential role of the viewer in relationship to these Agnostic Objects. “His artistic practice is stimulated by propositions and investigations, which are intentionally left unresolved in the objects he produces,” notes Nicole Stanbridge, the AGGV’s associate curator of contemporary art. “Consequently, the objects allow for thoughtful consideration on the part of the viewer.”

It also allows for thoughtful consideration on the part of the artist. “It is kind of a landmark,” Laskarin says about the survey exhibit. “It gives you a real opportunity to look over your own development from a bit of distance. And it’s good to have had the exhibit up for four months, as I was working on a lot of the works right up to the time it opened—so while it’s a survey exhibition, there’s a lot of new work that hasn’t been shown before. And it creates a platform for the next development.”

Indeed, with four pieces of the 21 pieces on view made specifically for this exhibit and another five having been “modified, reconfigured or changed” since their initial creation between 2000 and 2010, Agnostic Objects offers a range of work that can, depending on your perspective, be seen as delightful, challenging or downright perplexing.

“A lot of the works aren’t that easy to approach, but it’s contemporary work, it’s experimental work,” he explains. “Just like experimental physics, some of it is quite esoteric. The great thing about art as a practice is that it lets you think about things as seriously and deeply as you’re able.”

Agnostic Objects gallery overview, photo by Bob Matheson

Laskarin readily admits there’s room in the art world for “comfortable, recognizable, familiar” pieces, but also points out the necessity of universities to be creating “stuff that is more leading edge . . . for us to be doing populist work here would be a betrayal of the whole research character of our university.”

And when it comes to experiencing his work first-hand, Laskarin paraphrases famed art historian E.H. Gombrich. “He made the statement that when you enter an exhibition, each work of art you see is like encountering another consciousness. Once you recognize that, it changes the entire way you look at a work of art—it’s not necessarily about art as self-expression, or art as a statement about something; instead, it’s like meeting another person.”

Tuning Up

Two new conductors lead the School of Music in fresh directions

UVic’s School of Music has a pair of new conductors, and while both are young and innovative, each offers students a distinctly different tempo. Award-winning European composer and conductor Ajtony Csaba has stepped up to lead the UVic Orchestra, while Newfoundland composer and trumpet player Patrick Boyle is showing his brass with the Jazz Ensemble. Both bring with them a full score of awards and accolades—Csaba has performed with major orchestras in Europe and China, and his first opera, gentle birth, received numerous prizes, while the in-demand session artist Boyle has a pair of critically acclaimed solo albums (Still No Word and Hold Out) and was named “one of Canada’s top trumpet players and jazz musicians in general” by CBC Radio—and both are clearly happy to be on campus.

“I was looking for a remote place in the world where I can teach a little bit and work with an ensemble where I have the possibility to try out new things,” says Csaba of his shift to Victoria from Vienna, where he was chief conductor of the Central-European Chamber Orchestra and the Vienna Jeun

Ajtony Csaba (left) and Patrick Boyle. Photo by UVic Photo Services

Ajtony Csaba (left) and Patrick Boyle. Photo by UVic Photo Services

esse Choir. “It’s an excellent environment for research, to work out a mixture of practical and theoretical things. And to share my experience, which might be a little exotic here.”

For his part, Boyle—who recently performed at Carnegie Hall and is just completing his doctorate at the University of Toronto—says, “So far, so good; it’s really nice here. I’d heard good things about UVic’s jazz [courses] and I knew the music education department was a huge jewel in the crown here.”

The Transylvanian-born Csaba, whose interest lies in modern, experimental, contemporary music, is pleased with how his work has been received. “I know that what I’m doing is pretty experimental, but I’m happy the students and faculty enjoy taking part in it.” Despite the demands of teaching and conducting the UVic Orchestra, he’s still working with his ensemble in Vienna on an experimental repertory (“how to find new ways of doing a concert, using applied media, lots of interdisciplinary connections”), all of which is aimed at what he describes as “rethinking the concert.”

“Historically, we had a very long change from the Classical period, when concerts were aristocratic venues for a limited number of people, to the Romantic era, where it just became a show for a lot of people in a big concert hall,” he explains. “Now we are in the 21st century where everything is happening in parallel; we still have the Romantic approach, but a lot of new initiatives are coming up and everybody’s working out what we are doing, what it is.”

As both a jazzman and ethnomusicologist, Boyle’s interest naturally leans more toward the art of improvisation, which enhances his classes in jazz history, theory and arranging. “I like the study of music and culture,” he says. “I get great satisfaction from performing, but I do find researching different improvisatory traditions—South Indian music, bluegrass—has deepened my own performing life. It’s been a fun balance to live in both those worlds.”

Each conductor also has plans for breaking out of the Ring Road. “We have several invitations for different UVic ensembles to play off-campus, as well as in Vancouver, Toronto and different North American cities over the next few years,” says Csaba. Meanwhile, Boyle sees good potential in the city’s greater jazz community. “Much like St. John’s, Victoria seems to be a ‘build it and they will come’ kind of place. The jazz scene here is small but vibrant, and the players are of an extremely high quality. And I’d really like to develop a strong bond with local high school music programs; we need to have players coming into our school, so we really need to care about where they’re coming from.”

Boyle pauses and chuckles, seeming to speak for both new conductors as he reaches his coda. “Really, I’m just excited to contribute in any way I can.”

Richard Wagamese on the power of stories

Richard Wagamese believes in changing the world, one story at a time.

Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese

Want to change the world? According to Ojibway author and journalist Richard Wagamese, it’s easier than you think—all you have to do is talk to your neighbour.
“It’s an elemental thing,” he explains. “The boundaries and perceived limits of your world change when you stop and talk to another human being. When you exchange stories—where you came from, how you got there, how your life is going—the addition of that one story to your reality changes your world.”

Seem too simple? For Wagamese, that’s the beauty of it. “It’s not a huge undertaking, it’s not an enormous task or a quest,” he says. “It’s just talking. If you multiply that exponentially over seven billion people, where everyone is sharing one story with each other, the number of strangers in the world shrinks by the same process—you actually affect change by sharing stories.”

As part of his duties as the Department of Writing’s fourth annual Harvey S. Southam lecturer, the 55-year-old multiple award-winning Kamloops resident is not only passing this simple wisdom along to his UVicstudents this semester but he’s also holding a public lecture on February 16—titled, not surprisingly, “The Power of Stories”—where he’ll be launching his seventh book and latest memoir, One Story, One Song (Douglas & McIntyre). The follow-up to his acclaimed One Native Life, one of the Globe and Mail’s top-100 books of 2008, Wagamese describes One Story “as a book of reflections on the people, places and events that have shaped the man I am at 55.”

But One Story is only one of four books Wagamese is releasing in 2011. Also on deck are Indian Horse, a novel; Runaway Dreams, his first collection of poetry; and The Next Sure Thing, a story for Orca Books’ “Rapid Reads” difficult readers series. (When asked about Indian Horse, the author says “it’s about residential school, hockey and healing . . . and a pink elephant named Oscar who loves radishes.” He pauses, gives me a serious look to see if I’m buying it, then breaks out in a loud, long laugh. “No, no elephants,” he chuckles. “Just the hockey, healing and school.”) Add in his ongoing newspaper column and radio work, as well as his new teaching duties, and you’ve got a schedule that would seem daunting for any writer—but Wagamese seems nonplussed by it all.

“It’s like I tell my students—I’m a working writer, and I’m really happy with that,” he says. “I have a deadline every week, I have a course to teach, I have speaking engagements . . . as much as it seems kind of incredible, it doesn’t strike me as odd because it’s what I’ve worked towards.”

When asked how his background as member of the Wabaseemoong First Nation in Northwestern Ontario has factored into his success as a writer, Wagamese pauses before replying. “Well, it was through the grace of Creator, and the love and nurturing of my own tradition,” he explains. “I don’t have a degree, so I didn’t follow the established path to becoming a writer. But at one point in my mid-twenties, I asked traditional people why I didn’t have a role in our circle—why I wasn’t a hunter, a trapper, a carver, a drummer, a singer, a dancer, a fisherman. They listened to me tell my story about where I’d been, what had happened to me and how I found my way back home, and they said, ‘Well, the way you told that, you’re supposed to be a storyteller.’ And that amazed me.”

Richard Wagamese talks to a packed house at his public lecture in February

Richard Wagamese talks to a packed house at his public lecture in February

Thus began a process of traditional training that, along with 30-plus years of what he describes as “discipline, dedication and commitment,” has now led him here to UVic. “Everybody sees four books in one year and they think it’s incredible, but there’s a lot of stuff underneath the surface that makes that happen,” he says. “And that’s what I try to get across to my students—all of this becomes possible by virtue of the amount of initiative and determination you put into it.”

Ultimately, Wagamese feels the power of stories is inherent in every culture. “It speaks to something we all share, regardless of background,” he says. “We all carry a yearning to be heard. Everything we do from the time we gain the ability to recollect offers a story. And we need to remind each other that’s the truth of who we are as human beings; we’re hardwired to tell stories.”