What’s wrong with Banff

What’s wrong with Banff


norman lebrecht

October 03, 2013

A year ago, the Banff Centre in Canada dismantled its classical residencies and pretended nothing had changed. A furore erupted on Slipped Disc and the administration issued more bromides, which were gratefully reprinted by sections of the Canadian press. A year has passed.

Last weekend, the Globe and Mail published a glowing account of Banff’s glorious revival.

The former artistic director Henk Guittart wrote a dissenting letter to the paper, which it has failed to publish. He is happy to share it with Slipped Disc. Henk, in brief, accuses the Banff Centre and the newspaper of disseminating misinformation. Canadians should find his letter riveting.

UPDATE: And when they’ve read it, they might be even more appalled by this.




Letter to the Editor


Dear Madam, dear Sir,



Please allow me to respond to the article “Classical Music at the Banff Centre: It’s a religion, with its own doctrine”, by Ian Brown, published Sept. 29, 2013


In my view this article contains questionable statements as well as condescending views of audiences and it presents facts which need to be contradicted or corrected, in view of the  “authoritative news” that the Globe and Mail claims to bring. I will limit myself to the most urgent matters:


–        To my knowledge The Banff Centre ( not an “elite school”) has always welcomed musicians from all genres. During my seven years in Banff I witnessed a lot of residencies from “non-classical” musicians, including special Indie band residencies. One can differ of opinion about the desired proportions of genres, but during my days there were no prescribed numbers for certain genres, the one and only criterium was artistic quality, not a specific preferred genre. So there has always been a natural flow of residents, with unpredictable proportions of genres (of for that matter of instruments). The need or desire to change proportions of genres was never discussed with me.

–        To describe the storm of passionate criticism from hundreds of serious protesters (not just Canadian but also international residents -including “non-classical”-, and past and present guest faculty) in reaction to Mr. Melansons announced change as “the tiny tendentious town of Canadian classical music popped a gasket”, is misleading.

–        It is not true that “suddenly the Centre’s internationally renowned classical music department had to share its trove of financing with jazz musicians”. Wrong conclusion, or wrong informed? I leave that for others to correct.

–        I am depicted by Mr. Brown as “traditionalist”. I regret that he did not use the opportunity to meet me while we were both on campus, to inquire about my point of view,  and that he did not contact me later regarding this matter. Although all musicians, of all possible genres, always in one way or another build upon tradition, which is therefor not such a bad thing, I think that it is safe to say that for anyone who knows me, and for those who don’t and would take the trouble to look at my artistic output of the past 40 years and/or at my biography, the label “traditionalist” seems a too limited term, certainly when it comes to my projects  and my programming at The Banff Centre. It also gives the sense of me being in a certain “camp”, which I am not.

Ironically, the programs of the summer, including BISQC, seem to fit the description of old-fashioned “traditionalist” music life much better.

–        The unique residency program in fall and winter exists since over three decades, it has proven to be essential and crucial in the artistic development of many musicians and has-again- always welcomed musicians of all genres. From my arrival in the fall of 2006 until my being “ousted” in 2013,  I have heard (and coached with mutual pleasure) many “non-classical” musicians in Banff. The hugely varied artistic output of the many-sided talents that I witnessed in Banff formed the essential content of the concerts, often with a quite unusual mix of genres. As I often said in my pre-concert chats, referring to unfortunate existing biases and labeling of genres: “music is music”.

–        To describe, or worse: prescribe, the way an audience should feel and how music should be (“fun and provocative”) doesby no means do justice to the countless feelings and emotions that music of all genres offers.

–        To describe an audience by their age, ability to walk, and loss of hair is in my view not relevant, and misused in the context.

–        Is Banff (or Mr. Melanson) re-inventing the wheel? The idea of nurturing ( guiding, educating) musicians of all genres is really nothing new. Many well-known music schools/universities/academies/conservatories all over the word present those genres (and more) as mentioned by Mr. Melanson in their curriculum, and on a very high level. I am proudly teaching at one of them, since 23 years, in Rotterdam: Codarts. And his desire that the specialists might begin talking has been fulfilled ever since the start of those genres, many decades ago. The communications between creative artists from different genres can lead to inspiration and merging or for that matter separating, all with admiration and respect. I am proud to say that I always have been and still am part of those fruitful encounters. And it continues at all levels, also in Canada, I think. Could it all be ignorance?  I know this will be his word against mine, but since in this case his word has had many chances and mine was not heard so far: in the brief meeting we had at the end of September 2012 Mr. Melanson stated that he would not renew my contract because he wanted to change the Fall and Winter program completely in the direction of “non-classical” and then preferably Canadian music. He obviously had made up his mind, without any prior discussion with me about the possible changes, and he seemed not interested in my experience nor in my views. When I asked him about the future of classical music in the program he answered that if at all its role would be marginal. I am glad for classical music that the public opinion has made him change that plan. And I am sad that his actions have robbed me of a valuable and artistically succesful connection with about 200 musicians per year as well as with a very special attentive and appreciative audience.

–        During my years as director my guest faculty and I never focussed our help/guidance/coachings on the “cult of perfection” or the “fear of making a mistake”, but much more on “the uncertain vitality”.


Henk Guittart


The Hague, The Netherlands



  • theaderks says:

    It is quite shocking to learn that a staff member of the Banff Center also functions as the correspondent on this institution for a major Canadian newspaper. Moreover I can’t believe my eyes, reading that Ian Brown’s should describe Henk Guittart as a ‘traditionalist’. Surely Mister Brown could have looked a bit closer into Mr. Guittart’s background, for in 1974 Guittart was the founder of the famed Dutch Schönberg Ensemble, together with conductor Reinbert de Leeuw. On Guittart’s initiative this ensemble played the entire chamber music of the Second Viennese School, many pieces getting their Dutch premieres. It was also Guittart’s idea to engage the German movie star Barbara Sukowa to perform Pierrot lunaire – this was the first time after WWII that an actress, not a singer performed this role. The Schönberg Ensemble commissioned new works from living composers, as did the Schönberg Quartet, of which Guittart was not only the violist, but also the artistic leader.

    Amsterdam, 3 October, Thea Derks

  • Critical Reader says:

    I think it is quite alarming that the recent Globe and Mail article by Mr. Brown is heavily biased and very poorly researched. I won’t go into my interpretation of the Banff Centre situation as the article itself illustrates Mr. Brown’s agenda to indoctrinate the public-

    1. The Music Residency Program was never limited to Classical musicians- in fact, it has always embraced all musicians without the pre-existing labels, including a self-proclaimed ‘artist nomad,’ whose activities range from instrument making to long-distance horse-back journey. I suppose Mr. Brown must have conveniently missed such variety for the sake of his arguments, or his exposure to the program itself has been rather limited by his own personal views.

    2. The sensationalist writing found further on the article is quite disturbing, mainly concerning a ‘rivalry’ between a concert violinist and a jazz saxophonist. While Mr. Brown has identified most of his interviewees, he misses the obvious necessity of identifying these characters. If these two could not be identified, a proper journalist would have simply conduct another informal interview, as the point is to describe the general view of how one musician may view another genre, rather than trying to antagonize one discipline against another. Mr. Brown’s judgement only leads me to believe that he is not interested in reporting, however, to pass a personal editorial to create raft within the art world- for what reason? I do not know.

    3. I do agree with Corigliano’s statement that some compositions do get programmed too often. However, it is also true in other genres- whether it be pop, jazz or blues. The popular programming has never been the indicator of innovation, however, if art is to express the interest of the public, it is inevitable that a few selected works will become de rigour. However, without public, there is no art and one simply cannot decide what the ‘audience’ will accept or not; and if a few works are universally loved, I do not understand how their existence is harmful to the newer works.

    4. I would also like to point out to Mr. Brown that the main challenge of so-called new music (which already is problematic as it puts music in tightly-bound academic straight jacket) not only the audience, but also the structure of its institution. A few people tries to determine what is and is not ‘good,’ as Mr. Brown did in this article. Are we to take it at face value? I think that would be too close to fascism for my liking. But each to their own.

    5. Mr. Brown’s praise of rock music is another problem; what is ‘rock?’ Is it possible that he is using the terms rock and pop interchangeably? If we are to go into details, this explains Mr. Brown’s gross lack of general understanding of current music ecosystem. Just like classical music, even in rock, the real revenues are generated by a few great bands- so the situation, unfortunately, is quite comparative to classical music. So how does this make classical music any less valuable? Regardless of his possible misuse of rock and pop, is a Ferrari less valuable than a Honda Civic because it sold less?

    6. Another point: cult of perfection is not a bad thing; in fact, that is what drives us, the human population forward. without the cult of perfection (in the world), we would not have man on the moon, a new energy technology or life-saving medicinal advancement. And all musicians (and other professionals) I know are aware of ‘trying one’s best.’ Perfection is a goal that we all strive for; to say jazz and other musicians do not care to achieve perfection would be, once again, a gross generalization and narrow-minded. Jimi Hendrix, for instance, always practiced and rehearsed.

    7. And if Mr. Brown has the personal conviction to call the Banff String Quartet audience a ‘commercial turnip patch,’ with average age of 70 with his approximation, he may be mistaken. With the webcast (yes, the tool of the younger generation who may not have been able to make it to the event physically), it was followed with much fizz from all kinds of audiences that he would not have been able to ‘see.’ Did he make any effort to see how different age groups have interacted with this particular event? What would be his methodology? I would like to see the reply, please. To call himself an objective journalist without such basic research in ‘these days,’ I think Mr. Brown is not only overly confident, but jaded and foolish.

    These are just a few problematic points from the article itself. With such poor research and careless writing, I believe that it is not the classical music at the Banff Centre that is indoctrinating, but Mr. Brown, who wishes to create his own cult of ‘higher arts.’

  • Rob says:

    The problem rests largely in that the Canadian grant-giving “public” sees Western art-music as elitist, which it is not. It does to some degree require familiarity to fully understand, but be it Mozart or Schnittke, it packs the same level of emotional appeal as The Weeknd or Alexisonfire.

    The media supports making money, and it’s simply easier and more profitable to sell a simpler product. The Banff Centre should remain governed by artists, not bureaucrats and politicians, and should continue to support high quality music regardless of genre.

  • It’s quite simple dear musiclovers: the Banffguys and -girls in charge did not like and still do not like Mr. Guittart and his interesting (and succesful) artistic views for what real reasons else: the politicly motivated ones in forefront of course.

    But let us agree upon this: we do not like these Banffguys and -girls in charge and will shove these bastards straight back into hell’s mediocrecy: the normal and historcally-based common ground of and for them. Dixti Dominus (nów you can and masy say properly: ‘Amen’)

  • Stefano Bollani says:

    As a so-called “jazz piano player” I can only say this strange “discussion” about genres and their relevance seems quite useless. As Mr. Guittart says in his letter, there are a lot of places around the world where people is working on music, without being occupied in deciding WHICH kind of music it is. And Banff always used to be one of these places, creative and inspiring. I think that was also because of Henk’ s sensitive supervision. Definitively, you can’ t call him a “traditionalist”.

    Stefano Bollani

  • I find Mr Brown’s article very amateur, incompetent and ignorant… All my residencies at the Banff Centre were one of the best musical experiences I’ve ever had! To read that Henk Guittart is a traditionalist seems like a joke. He is far from that and thanks to his open-mindedness, musical experience, passion and inspiration all residents could further develop as musicians and I will always be grateful to him for my musical growth. Apart from working on my own classical music projects I was encouraged by Henk to collaborate with other artists and that included jazz musicians and arrangers. P.S. I also learnt to play viola for a special recording project (Pierre Lunaire) directed by Henk and now I teach that instrument at Junior Trinity Laban Conservatoire in London (apart from violin and chamber music).

    Magdalena Filipczak

  • Jeff LaRochelle says:

    Just wanted my reply to Henk’s letter here, originally on Facebook:

    “Thank you for your letter Henk. As one of the “jazz musicians” at the residency last year, I would like to thank you for your openness and support of Roarshaq and other non-classical groups last winter. Surprised to be able to talk about Charlie Parker and Lennie Tristano with a so-called “traditionalist”… I know that I learned a lot from the classical musicians there and maybe vice versa as well. I agree with the ethos of deepening the “cross-pollination” of genres but how they are going about keeps me skeptical. The important thing is to keep the quality and integrity of the art intact. Nonetheless, hope you are doing well!”

    Jeff LaRochelle