I had a chance to catch up with the handsome, 20-year-old Montréal born cellist Stéphane Tétreault, Interlude’s artist of the month. He already has an impressive dossier. The release of his debut CD, featuring the works of Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky, was met with critical acclaim in Canada and recently praised in the classical music world-leading Gramophone and The Strad magazines. His recording was chosen as Editor’s Choice in the March 2013 issue of Gramophone Magazine.
Tell me a little bit about your musical background. When did you start playing the cello?
I started the cello when I was seven years old. As a young child, I attended a music school in Montréal. At the age of five we all played the xylophone, the recorder, and we sang in a choir. When I reached grade two my teacher wanted me to start a stringed instrument. I chose the violin because it was more familiar to me — I hadn’t been to too many concerts at that time, and it seemed the most prominent and visible instrument to me! The teacher was dismayed because she had 20 violinists enrolled. She tried to convince me to play the cello by saying that it was more comfortable to play, that you could sit and hug it… But I was quite stubborn! She won the argument finally, by saying that if I took the cello, she would buy me a gift at the end of the year. I didn’t dislike the cello. It seemed like a nice hobby — not a passion at first, but I learned pieces very quickly. At the age of nine I started studying with Montreal cellist Yuli Turovsky who became my long time mentor until the last days of his life. I owe him everything. He died sadly at the age of 73 in 2013. He was the founder of Montreal’s I Musici chamber orchestra.
You’ve won several competitions how do you feel about competitions?
I’ve been quite lucky especially with local competitions. I also received great comments in international competitions, but I’m taking a little break now from competing. I found them extremely important for musical development. Competitions offer crucial benchmarks for musicians. I had to learn many concertos, required pieces, and various sonatas, as well as all the Bach Solo Suites. There is a date by the time you have to learn a lot of material. I would practice like an insane person for three and a half months and it was very enriching for me — not only learning the repertoire but all the traveling internationally. If you won, great! But it was never the primary or sole objective for my teacher or me.
What is your favorite repertoire?
I try to bring out the best in any piece or composition. My preference is the romantic period — the music of Brahms, Russian music and I like contemporary music too as it gives me energy and a special feeling when I’m playing.
And what are you working on now?
I’m working on the Rachmaninoff Sonata and the Elgar and Dvořák Concertos. I’ll be performing the Elgar for the first time in May. I’ve worked on it since I was 10 years old — I’ve watched Jacqueline du Pré’s videos all the time over and over! I think it’s the definitive interpretation of the piece.
You have a gorgeous sound. Tell us a little bit about your wonderful cello.
I am so very fortunate that I have been playing since 2012 on the Stradivari cello of 1707, the “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein”. It belonged to the esteemed cellist Bernard Greenhouse for 54 years. It’s an incomparable cello with the warmest sound and endless possibilities for different sound qualities and colors. It offers me infinite opportunities to growth as a cellist. One of Canada’s wealthiest and most powerful businessmen, Paul Desmarais and his wife Jacqueline Desmarais befriended me after hearing me perform in 2010. I played Rococo Variations with Maxim Vengerov conducting and afterward I gave a short interview. It caught Mme. Desmarais attention. She spoke to someone about me and we soon became good friends. I started looking for a cello. I heard that the Paganini, Countess of Stainlein cello was going to be auctioned in Boston by Reuning & Son Violins. Not until I played this cello did I fall in love! This was the cello that caught my heart. Mme. Desmarais won the auction and has loaned me the instrument.
That is a remarkable story! But of course you make the cello sound the way it does. How do you handle the stress of performing?
Well, I think it helps to start to perform at a really young age, at the time when it really doesn’t affect you. I’m never not nervous, but it doesn’t take over. It depends on the piece — whether it’s new or old and how secure I feel with it. There are always butterflies, but it’s not something I worry too much about.
How do you feel about performing chamber music?
I’ve played chamber music from the age of ten — I had a trio for six or seven years and now I’m in a string quartet named after our teacher. All four of us have known each other since we were nine years old and we’re all past students of Yuli Turovsky and his wife, Eleonor, who was principal violin of I Musici from its founding in 1983 until 2011. (She predeceased him in 2012.) The Turovskys influenced all the members and we wanted to honor them.
My main ambition is to be a soloist, but I’ll never forget about chamber music. It’s so inspiring to play with others!
Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I look forward to hearing more about you and watching your career, which for sure be stellar!
The “Paganini, Countess of Stainlein” Cello Sold in Private Sale by Reuning & Son Violins
Haydn : Divertimento for Cello in D Major
Massenet : Méditation from Thaïs