By Arthur Kaptainis
MONTREAL — Sometimes a gifted musician can attain a central and uncontested position in a city without manifesting any ambition to do so. Such a figure was Christopher Jackson, the mild-mannered but visionary conductor and organist who co-founded the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal in 1974 and went on to define for Montrealers how Renaissance masters should sound. His death last year at age 67 left SMAM without its leader but with an indestructible legacy of leadership, which the choir (expanded to 24 voices and abetted by an orchestra of 23) celebrated on Sept. 19 by presenting Monteverdi’s Vespers as a memorial.
On the podium was Julian Wachner, who became a great friend of Jackson while they were like-minded professors at rival Montreal universities (Jackson at Concordia and Wachner at McGill). Now known for, among other things, his work at Trinity Wall Street and with the Washington Chorus, Wachner summoned a lavish performance of this 100-minute masterpiece. If Monteverdi inevitably had his eyes fixed on heaven, Wachner’s interpretation reminded us of how firmly the composer’s feet were planted on earth.
One sensed the materiality of the conception from the beginning in the strong beats of the overture, nicely counterpoised with the dance interludes. “Psalms” had drama and gravitas: the lively rhythms of the last, “Lauda Jerusalem,” came through effectively despite the resonance of the Church of Saint-Léon-de-Westmount. A glowing place for Jackson’s exquisite renderings of Palestrina and Lasso, this exuberantly decorated Romanesque structure is a challenging forum for more opulent music.
Choirs and soloists occasionally migrated to various stations in the sanctuary to create characteristic antiphonal or echo effects, although in this setting all the music seems to radiate from everywhere. Sopranos Marie Magistry and Stephanie Manias blended lucidly in an operatic “Pulchra es.” Tenor Nils Brown was a force among the male soloists. If burnished tone was wanting in the “Nigra sum” as performed by another tenor, expression was not.
Looking muscular in short sleeves, Wachner stood to the side during a few of the simpler movements but mostly exercised leadership with big gestures and unflagging momentum. Doxologies sounded impressive rather than formulaic, and while I cannot rid myself of the habit of judging Monteverdi’s harmonic language according to the standards of his successors, I was able to appreciate the minimal sound of the “Duo seraphim” for what it was.
There was no intermissison, none being needed. Strings, cornetts, and sackbuts alternated brilliantly in the “Sonata sopra Sancta Maria.” A solemn treatment of the “Ave maris stella” led to the concluding Magnificat, a complex work in its own right, with varied and intriguing effects, but also an excellent forum for the pure choral sound that Jackson built.
There was much applause from the loyal SMAM audience for the performance and for the purpose — this being a benefit concert. All the participants donated their services. (Brown and bass Martin Auclair were described in the program as “project initiators.”)
Andrew McAnerney, a former member of the Tallis Scholars, was named artistic director of SMAM last December. The Englishman will be in charge of a program of Elizabethan motets and madrigals on Oct. 16. There can be no doubt that McAnerney has a fine and disciplined squad to work with. And a remarkable tradition to uphold.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.