Montreal ‘Ladies’ Club Serves Up Classical Cream

Soprano Karina Gauvin presented a recital for the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club, founded in 1892.
By Arthur Kaptainis

MONTREAL — The Ladies’ Morning Musical Club raises a few questions with its very name. To answer the most salient: men have been admitted to concerts presented by this venerable Montreal chamber-music society for almost 50 years, although its committee, presided over for years by the philanthropist Constance Pathy, remains exclusively female.

Eventually, men were admitted and concerts moved to afternoons.

Another clarification: LMMC concerts are now in fact on Sunday afternoons. And while the LMMC did concoct a formal translation of “Ladies’ Morning Musical Club” after the passage in 1977 of Quebec’s controversial Charter of the French Language, it is never used, even if the audience, like Montreal itself, is now mostly French-speaking.

“Many times we have agonized over this,” Pathy said after a recent recital by soprano Karina Gauvin. “But we have decided to keep the name.” With, it should be mentioned, a special dispensation from the provincial government.

Finally it must be stressed that whether because of or despite the 19th-century character of its name, and indeed much of its programming, the LMMC is doing rather well. About 500 of the 600 seats in Pollack Hall, the main concert facility of McGill University, are sold by subscription.

“Mostly the grey crowd,” committee member Régine Langlois commented on Dec. 4 as she surveyed the healthy house that would be greeting Gauvin. But people have been advancing from youth to middle age and beyond for millennia, a process that seems to replenish the ranks at the LMMC.

Afternoon performance is an attraction, as is a cultivated atmosphere where coughing is rare and applause between movements unknown. This is not to say a LMMC concert is a high-society affair. Casual wear predominates. The exclusivity resides in the attention to music and the high performance standard that this ambience seems to encourage.

nxt_concert_imgThe guest roster favors old friends. The Emerson String Quartet has appeared 15 times, cellist Pieter Wispelwey nine times. International figures are mixed with Canadians, although these qualities are of course not mutually exclusive.

Gauvin is a two-in-one. A native of Répentigny, east of Montreal, she often performs in the United States (Handel’s Messiah with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on Dec. 15 and 17) or across the pond (a mini-tour in France, Jan. 11-14, of Vivaldi’s cantata La Senna Festeggiante with the B’Rock Baroque Orchestra, and a program of Handel arias in London’s Wigmore Hall on Jan. 28 with Le Concert de la Loge).

Gauvin put together a light art song program. (Julien Faugere)

As that agenda might imply, Gauvin is best known as an exponent of 18th-century opera and oratorio, to which she applies an ample rather than self-consciously historical sound. For the Ladies she offered something quite different: art song, with touches of folk and cabaret. In Debussy’s Ariettes oubliées, Gauvin showed us how the fin-de-siècle practice of feeling sad could be communicated in a richer tone than is usual in the salon. If some consonants had to be taken on faith in the first set of Copland’s Old American Songs, it was easy to be seduced by the steady vibrato of the “o” that extends the verses of “Long Time Ago.”

Things went from light to lighter. Satie’s “Je te veux” and Poulenc’s “Les chemins de l’amour” were heard, perhaps redundantly, back to back. Pathy admitted to feeling some reservations about the repertoire. High-minded cycles in German are more typical of LMMC programming than sentimental waltzes in French.

glenn-goulds-1952-programAll the same, the crowd cheered both Gauvin and the sensitive pianist Michael McMahon, to whom she drew attention in an on-stage tribute. Three bits of exotica by Bizet had their charms, but my fondest memory was Lia’s recitative and aria from Debussy’s cantata L’enfant prodigue, where the operatic amplitude of Gauvin’s voice had its most natural outlet.

Another Canadian, Stewart Goodyear, appears under the auspices of the LMMC on Feb. 5. This recital will celebrate the 125th year of the society by duplicating the 1952 Montreal debut of yet another Canadian, Glenn Gould. The program – verified at right – should pass muster: Orlando Gibbons’s Pavane and Galliard for the Earl of Salisbury, Bach’s Partita No. 5 in G Major, Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 101, Brahms’s Intermezzi Op. 117, No.3 and Op. 118, No.2, and Berg’s Sonata Op. 1.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.