Talking in Tune

One of Canada’s busiest and most versatile violinists will perform in Whitehorse on May 17 as part of his collaboration with local composer Daniel Janke on an upcoming CD of contemporary string music.

In a career spanning more than 20 years, Mark Fewer has been — among other things — a chamber musician, a symphony concertmaster and soloist, and an interpreter of such jazz legends as Stephane Grappelli and Stuff Smith.

He has also been an academic and founding artistic director of the innovative SweetWater Music Festival in Owen Sound, Ontario.

You might even catch him playing the sprightly fiddle tunes that characterize his Newfoundland home, although that’s not how he cut his musical teeth. “I started with piano, then I added violin as a classical instrument, and only later did I start getting into jigs and reels,” he admits. “But yeah, if you’re a Newfie and you own a fiddle, you really can’t not play jigs and reels”.

The Globe and Mail once described his playing as a marriage of “precise, classical intensity and fiddler’s flair,” and Fewer doesn’t deny the Island influence. “I’ve often played classical concerts, particularly certain types of classical concerts, like Baroque music, and had people say, ‘I never knew it could sound like it was a jig from Joe Batt’s Arm,’” he laughs. “There is obviously a part of me that is inherently from the Island, as it were, as an expressive device. It’s not like I can completely turn that off once it’s been turned on.”

For the past few years, Fewer has been artist-in-residence in the music department of Stanford University in San Francisco, California, and second violinist with the world-renowned St. Lawrence String Quartet.

This summer, he takes up a new post in Montreal, chairing the string department in McGill University’s prestigious Schulich School of Music, where he previously served as an associate professor of violin and chamber music.

Fewer was originally hired to bring diversity to a program heavily weighted to classical music, he explains. “Now they’re recognizing that up one level further with this new posting, which will enable me to put my backing behind several projects over the next 10 years, things like what I’ve doing with Daniel in Whitehorse.” “Mark and I have worked together a lot over the last 10 or 15 years, and we’ve sort of developed a way of approaching string writing. So it’s kind of a natural extension of all that work to be releasing a CD,” Janke says.

While Fewer is not a composer per se, his skill as an improviser has been integral to their collaboration, whether for concerts or for one of Janke’s film projects. “If it wasn’t improvising actual notes, it would be improvising time. So I would be improvising the way in which a line might flow around an idea,” he says.

Fewer says one work that sparked their long-term relationship was “Martha Black’s Reel”, a tune Janke wrote in 1996 for fiddle and prepared piano. “It was so beautiful, it is still one of my favourite works for violin and piano in the last 30 years,” he says. “Since then, there have been several new pieces, and now of course with this new recording coming up there will be more.”

That recording will feature a number of violin solos, as well as duets for piano and violin. If funding permits, Janke says, it will also include an 18-minute string quartet.

The composer admits his first foray into writing a full album of string music doesn’t fit an easilydefined genre. “That’s a tough one, because it’s violin music. It’s like contemporary music, but it’s accessible,” he ventures. “It’s not very academic, I guess is one way to put it. But it’s a new music CD, so it’s for new music afi – cionados.”

Fewer struggles with the same question. “Some people will want to call it new music; some people will want to call it classical music; some people might even say avant-garde. It’s hard to put a really clear finger on that,” he says. “He doesn’t write thinking he’s going to be Schoenberg. He’s writing it like he’s Daniel Janke.”

The pair will perform in concert “on the wing” at the Yukon Arts Centre (YAC) on Sunday, May 17 at 7:30 p.m. The event is a coproduction of Jazz Yukon and YAC. Tickets range from $17 to $22. “The performance is part of the development process,” Fewer explains. “One of the things that makes something clearer in the performer’s or the interpreter’s mind is the opportunity to play it for other listeners in a live space.”

Janke and Fewer will give an artist talk about the collaborative process from 5:30-6:30 p.m. on Friday, May 15 at the Old Fire Hall.

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