Early Music Group Brings Life Spark To Sepulcral Hall

Bourgie Hall © Marc Cramer, courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art
Bourgie Hall, restored chapel of Erskine and American United Church, is home to Studio de musique ancienne concerts.
© Marc Cramer, courtesy of the Montreal Museum of Fine Art
By Lev Bratishenko

MONTREAL — A few hundred Montrealers faced winter’s first cold snap on Dec. 14 to hear Venetian choral music performed by the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal, a concert programmed for the Montreal Museum of Fine Art’s “Splendors of Venice” exhibition around the theme of choral music at San Marco. It is impossible to talk about this fine evening dedicated to another building, Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice,  without considering the space where we heard it — Bourgie Hall, a restored chapel among the more depressing rooms in the universe. Mercifully, this veritable undertakers’ hall usually presents excellent music.

Former Erskine and American United Church, now Bourgie Hall, Montreal © Marc Cramer
Erskine and American United Church, now Bourgie Hall (MMFA)

Bourgie Hall is the chapel of an 1894 church next to the museum, which saved the building in 2008 and restored it. There are good sides to having a concert hall symbiotic with a museum: The programming can be inspired by exhibitions and the location is central and busy. But these are only obvious with experience. The bad is more easily apparent: The hall is as inspiring as a funeral parlor and sounds dry and unforgiving. The conservation painstakingly restored the chapel — manacled master carvers on their knees, weeping — with added hospice chairs and an aluminum armature for stage lights stabbed into the ceiling. The embalmed result is a fascinating study in the neurological effects of architecture.

It is dusty gray and deeply, unsettlingly sad. Worst are the covered and backlit Tiffany windows. This will preserve them forever, of course, but it makes one feel underground, forgotten, buried. It was a revelation, then, to realize that this dreadful place has a natural acoustic preference for voice, though the Studio’s sensitive playing and conductor Christopher Jackson’s unhurried attentiveness deserve most of the credit.

Montreal’s lively early music scene includes Studio de musique ancienne
Montreal’s lively early music scene includes Studio de musique ancienne

Jackson co-founded the Studio de musique ancienne in 1974. It is now an institution in Montreal’s notoriously healthy early music scene. “One of the most active in North America,” says Jackson. “I’ve lost count of the number of groups – 18 now? – with many fine musicians and an interesting group of leaders. I like to think we had our role to play in this effervescence.”  A last minute performance opportunity at Carnegie Hall got them some deserved attention this spring.

The Venetian choral program was devoted primarily works by Giovanni Gabrieli and Monteverdi from 1590-1620, with one earlier piece by Adrian Willaert for seven voices (one of the highlights, about a royal boat serene and splendid on the Grand Canal) sung doubled by Studio’s thirteen-strong choir, and accompanied by a handful of musicians from the cornetto and sackbutt ensemble La Rose des Vents. Voice reigned; the instruments provided a foundation and occasional ornamentation, and Bourgie’s stubbornness gave way.

Most of the Gabrieli pieces were from his Symphoniæ Sacræ of 1615,  composed like much of his writing for multiple choirs in the basilica of San Marco. Spatial qualities were emphasised by Studio’s intelligent decision to rearrange themselves for each piece, a worthwhile shuffle that maximized vocal separation and gave us an idea of how the counterpoints, calls and responses, and echoes might have sounded across that grand nave. Only a lute, a beautiful little Helmuth Wolff organ, and Jackson stayed in place while the stage orbited around them.

Christopher Jackson is co-founder of the Montreal choral ensemble.
Christopher Jackson is director of the Montreal choral ensemble.

Studio’s vocalists and instrumentalists have a pleasing variety of character. This is one of the joys of early music on period instruments, but I have rarely heard a choir embrace textural differences to this degree. There were six soloists, and each had a sharply individual color that was at times lovely and shocking, mobile and stuffy. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed the unaccompanied vocal works best, like Gabrieli’s fourteen-voice motet In ecclesiis, C. 78, that emerged intricate and complete, a tiny world like an Fabergé egg.

The second half was all Monteverdi, the best of which was a pair of magnificent motets for six voices and bass continuo, Adoramus te, Christe and Domine, ne in furore. The latter was beautifully disquieting, a reaching invocation that resonated longer than even the teleporting concluding Magnificat.

The Studio’s upcoming concerts can be found at www.smamontreal.ca.

Lev Bratishenko writes on classical music and architecture for publications like The Montreal Gazette, Icon, Maclean’s, and www.yesyesyes.ca.