Silver Birch String Quartet virtuoso performance entertains and educates at Gore Bay Museum

A capacity audience enjoyed the energetic chamber music interpretations of the Silver Birch String Quartet at the Gore Bay Museum. From left, Christian Robinson on violin, Alexandra Lee on cello, Jane Russell on viola and Geoff McCausland on violin. Photo by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

GORE BAY — You don’t usually think of Manitoulin as a hotbed of chamber music devotees, but that would be a serious oversight, as last month’s standing-room-only concert by the Silver Birch String Quartet (aka SBSQ) at the Gore Bay Museum amply demonstrated.

Based in Sudbury and String Quartet-in-Residence at Laurentian University since 2012, SBSQ is Christian Robinson and Geoff McCausland on violins, Alexandra Lee on cello and Jane Russell on viola. Together they’ve performed all over North America and collaborated with many renowned Canadian chamber musicians, garnering a JUNO nomination in 2010 and two Felix awards in Québec for their first album, ‘Silverbirch,’ also named one of the Top 10 albums of the year by the Montreal Gazette.

Christian Robinson is an accomplished violinist who emceed the evening’s proceedings for the 75-plus attendees. He’s a little nerdy-looking with his thick dark glasses that he often pushes back onto his nose, recalling clichés of absent-minded professors, except when he’s sitting down playing his violin. Then he’s a tireless whirling dervish of the strings. A consummate performer, he warms up the audience with jokes and anecdotes whose message is: relax, you’re going to enjoy yourselves, no matter how little or how much you know about classical chamber music. He’s a bit like the clowns tumbling out of the miniature cars before the circus starts, and looks just as surprised that he’s getting laughs.

While SBSQ is a very serious ensemble composed of four virtuosi, they are also educators driven by a passion to communicate their love not only of the chamber music form but of music in its entirety. Mr. Robinson gets the audience onside with his easy-to-relate-to descriptions of the music they’re about to play: “Bach is so mathematical in his compositions; they are like a series of intellectual puzzles. He’d be a computer programmer today.” Or, so we can appreciate Haydn fully, and perhaps for the first time, he tells us that “everything that’s human is in Haydn.” These are as good starting points as any for the neophytes in the crowd: now we can listen for the computer programmer in Bach and the humanist in Haydn.

So there we were, listening raptly to four movements of Franz Joseph Haydn’s String Quartet Op 77 No. 1, composed in 1799, and you could have heard a pin drop, especially in the pauses between movements. The music had a light, gay feel, as might be expected from a court musician to princes in Austria who also became a popular favorite at the end of the 18th century, bringing to mind powdered wigs and courtlier times with their minuets of delicate little steps.

After J.S. Bach’s Selections from the Art of Fugue, which he composed in 1740 and which sounded more sophisticated musically than Haydn (this from an unsophisticated listener, in case you have not already discerned this) and an intermission, it was on to Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F major.

This seemed a very exciting part of the programme, judging from Mr. Robinson’s enthusiasm in the introduction. Ravel, we learn, was French, and best known for composing ‘Bolero.’ This String Quartet was composed in 1903 and was criticised for “not being French enough. This is the sound and texture of French music, written in 5/8 time,” says Mr. Robinson, tapping out the rhythm to illustrate the snappy beat.

French, Austrian, German music, the audience lapped it up. The focussed energy and discipline of the four performers was infectious, their passion for their craft obvious and their talent enormous. A standing ovation was the crowd’s enthusiastic response.

“I’m just full of adrenalin,” declared cellist Alexandra Lee after the show, “just buzzing!” She described the feeling as being like “when an athlete finishes a competition, it’s mental, physical and above all, emotional. Through it all, we must remain flexible and versatile.”

SBSQ selects their repertoire as a group. “It’s a democracy, we operate by consensus,” says violinist Geoff McCausland. “I love it,” says Ms. Lee, “because I can express myself as an artist and also as a part of this group. There’s no conductor, we all pay attention to each other, take cues from each other as we play. It’s empowering, and we touch the minds of the greatest composers ever.”

Viola player Jane Russell feels “we’re creating something special with this combination of instruments and their range of colours. There’s the physicality of playing and the emotions we respond to that are coming from the audience, to what the audience is feeling.”

Jane Russell’s husband of one month, Eamonn Reil, a theatre artist, spent the whole of the concert watching the group intently, savouring the performance. “There has to be a strong ensemble in chamber music,” he says, “constantly in dialogue together within the framework of the music.”  He explains that SBSQ not only performs the classics, but is interested in inter-disciplinary collaborations. They perform the ‘new chamber music’ of contemporary composer Robert Lemay of Sudbury in an effort to bring more listeners to the music they love, proving, says Mr. Reil, “that chamber music is still evolving today.”  In 2013, the Silver Birch String Quartet recorded an album of the complete music for string quartet by Lemay.

Classical music aficionado, barrister (and “lapsed violinist”) James Weppler noted that SBSQ has been playing at the museum for 10 years. “What I love is the intimacy of chamber music. The themes and melodies are transparent as you watch the interactions among the musicians. They’re talking to each other, repeating the melodic theme. Their repertoire is traditional and sometimes avant-garde, always thrilling.”

Alexandra Lee sums it up: “There are divides in musical tastes, but all music, and our chamber music, asks: Have you heard the breadth of this music? Are you alive? Can you hear this?”

For more on the quartet, visit