MONTREAL – Many concert halls have organs, but not all such instruments are employed as assiduously as the Grand Orgue Pierre-Béique, installed five years ago in the Maison symphonique and named in honor of Pierre Béique, 1910-2003, the first managing director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.
Apart from the expected service in orchestral and choral works, the 83-stop, 6,489-pipe colossus built by Casavant Frères (and funded by the benefactress Jacqueline Desmarais, 1928-2018) is used in silent movie presentations, improvisation extravaganzas, and events as creative as a 2017 hook-up with the International Space Station.
The anniversary concert on May 19 was scarcely less out of the ordinary, featuring as it did a version by organist Olivier Latry of The Rite of Spring based on Stravinsky’s own four-hands piano account but of course greatly enhanced by registrations meant to replicate the orchestral original. To say nothing of the enhancement of four feet, although in point of fact Shin-Young Lee, sitting to the left of Latry at the stage console and playing the secondo part, did most of the tap-dancing on the pedals, quite adroitly during the prestissimo final minutes of Part 1.
In addition to being titular organist of Notre-Dame de Paris – and thus principal authority regarding the miraculously good post-fire condition of the cathedral’s famous organ – Latry is MSO organist emeritus. It was he who gave the inaugural concerts in 2014, and it was quite clear from this performance (which involved MSO organist-in-residence Jean-Willy Kunz as page turner) that he well knows its coloristic potential.
The bassoon and horn of the opening were surprisingly authentic in aural profile. Indeed, there were a few passages in this Rite that might have fooled (or at least confused) a blindfolded listener. The Introduction to Part 2, with its serpentine trumpets, was wonderfully atmospheric, as were the songful string lines of the “Mystic Circles of the Young Girls.”
But classically conceived organs do not do percussion particularly well, so the onset of “The Naming and Honoring of the Chosen One” did not have the requisite thwack. Still, Latry and Lee (husband and wife, although this information was omitted from the program biographies) had the spirit of Stravinsky coursing through their veins. The race to the conclusion was thrilling.
As an even-grander finale, the program brought together the above-named organists with Christian Lane, winner of the 2011 Canadian International Organ Competition, for an eight-hands (and eight-feet) version of Ravel’s Bolero. Commissioned by the MSO in 2016, this concoction by Canadian composer John Burge stationed Kunz and Lane at the mechanical console in the loft – below the signature lightning-bolt pipe array – and Latry and Lee at the electronic console on stage. MSO percussionist Serge Desgagnés played the mandatory snare drum to the left of the upper duo.
With its spectral array of sonorities, Bolero might seem a perfect candidate for transcription, but the outcome was disappointing. However closely a stop replicates its orchestral namesake, the little nips and tucks of tone that animate a long line – think of the sass of the trombone solo – are hard to summon on the organ. Ditto the pizzicato pulse of the strings. Still, the level of excitement increased with the volume, and the crowd (substantial for an organ concert) rose inevitably to its feet.
The first half of the program comprised performances by Latry of tributes to J.S. Bach, not all of which have aged well. There was no problem with Schumann’s sober Fugue No. 1 on the Name of B-A-C-H, enlivened by a convincing crescendo in the final minute. Charles-Marie Widor’s Marche du veilleur de nuit (based half-heartedly on “Wachet auf”) proved too brief to bother with, and Eugène Gigout’s transcription of the soprano aria from Cantata No. 68 sounded overly sweet.
The substantial pieces were Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G minor and Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H. According to the fine print in the program, Latry used Liszt’s piano transcription of the former masterpiece to create what can fairly be called a post-Bach Frankenstein monster. The soprano line of the Fantasia at times was barely perceptible amid the ridiculous rumbles and roars.
Latry also gussied up the Liszt, apparently with some material from the composer’s piano version. Registrations changed so often that the thrust and fabric of the music were lost. Volume was prodigious. The adjustable panels of the hall that are suspended at a middling altitude for orchestral concerts were lifted high to make the space acoustically as churchlike as possible.
The afternoon left no doubt of the potential of the instrument or its future as an integral part of MSO seasons. There was, however, a touch of the Mighty Wurlitzer in the programming, and even the sound. A perfect tribute would have made room for some straight-up standards, played accordingly.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette, Ludwig van Toronto, and La Scena Musicale.