The string nonet Collectif 9 offers its public something truly as valuable as it is rare: classical repertoire “revisited with passion and fearlessness”. They are a group of very young and fiercely talented string players, many of whom play in the city’s professional orchestras. They enthusiastically align themselves with the growing movement called Classical Revolution which seeks to bring “art music” to a variety of venues and audiences with the goal of obliterating the stigmas of musty conventionalism and tradition far too often associated with the genre.

Members of Collectif 9
Members of Collectif 9

In working towards that aim, Collectif 9 had a triumph tonight. The venue was the ornately decorated Théâtre Rialto, its walls adorned with gold inlay and peppered with Victorian chandeliers, juxtaposed with extensive rock-band lighting and psychedelic fog. The members of the ensemble were arranged in a rock-band formation as well: two cellos and a bass in the back where a drummer might be, two violins and violas off to the side (rhythm guitar and bass) and rotating players front and center (lead singer and solo guitar). In fact, the group once performed in a Battle of the Bands competition, and fared surprisingly well with their Shostakovich and Vivaldi against heavy metal and punk. Each instrument was amplified, which, after some fine tuning throughout the performance, ended up sounding quite balanced while maintaining the tone of the instruments themselves.

They began rather surprisingly with Mozart’s Divertimento in D major, K136, though just as we began to settle into that sonic world the music was interrupted by excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. It was clear from the onset that no one player stood out as being stronger or weaker than the others -- all members of the ensemble had a more than impressive faculty on their respective instruments.

Most of the music this evening needed to be arranged, a task which was given to contrabassist Thibault Bertin-Maghit, who, aside from providing the music, served as the rhythmic foundation of the group. His playing, much like the rest of the group’, was at all times a healthy mix of technical control and abandon.

A very effective arrangement of Brahms’ “Rondo alla Zingarese” from the Piano Quartet no. 1, Op. 25 was next, a piece which would initiate the gypsy theme so persistent this evening. This was a well-informed arrangement, no doubt drawing both from the Brahms original and the Schoenberg transcription for full orchestra.

Bach, Bartók, Shostakovich and Hindemith followed, and then a wild and savage version of the Finale of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. It was very refreshing to witness the blending of casualness and competence in a continent which is far too often obsessed with the academic process of music making. These musicians don’t elevate the composers to demigod status, but instead find great value in the process of the performance itself, and the delivery of that art the great composers made.

Soprano Samantha Louis-Jean entered the stage to perform Vivaldi’s In furore iutissimae irae, a tempestuous motet for soprano, two violins, viola and bass, made of perilous melismas and leaps into the heights of her range. Engulfed in colorful strobe lights and spinning fog, she looked more like Tina Turner than a classically trained vocalist, but she certainly sounded the part – her voice easily sustained the rolling coloratura lines and huge intervallic leaps. It would have been nice to hear one more piece with her.

The second half featured more Vivaldi, a composer who is so often revered by metal bands – a fact which clearly inspired this performance. The interpretation was certainly visceral in its effect, though the amplification and reverb, paired with the breakneck speed at which they played it, resulted in a loss of clarity. Romero, Golijov, more Vivaldi, and Schnittke followed, and with each piece it seemed as if the group was becoming more and more comfortable with the amplification and the venue itself. There were some very fine solos from each of the violinists: Roland Arnassalon, Yubin Kim, Grégor Monlun, and Frédéric Moisan, whose profile seemed a modern reincarnation of Franz Liszt, the original rockstar.

Two encores were demanded, and the final piece, Turceasca by the Romani-Romanian group Taraf de Haïdouks was the most impressive display of the evening. The audience was obviously made up mostly of musicians, because unlike most audiences who clap along with the music, this one never lost a beat even though an extended accelerando.

Collectif 9 has a lot of things going for them: youth, prodigious talent, style, and a well-run administration and marketing plan. If their goal is to bring classical music to the public in new ways and new places, I think they’ll find that Montréal is the perfect place to do it, and I think it’s clear that their path to success is only beginning.