A Veiled Treasure: Redesigned Church As Intimate Concert Hall

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Montreal’s Bourgie Hall was reconfigured from the nave of the Erskine and American Church. (Photo by Julia Marois)

MONTREAL — Few people outside of Montreal know about a beautiful little 465-seat concert venue known as Bourgie Hall, located in the heart of downtown. Architecturally, acoustically, and visually, it is a gem, specifically designed for solo recitals and chamber music. In the mere 14 years since it was founded, it has become one of the busiest institutions of its kind in the world. The hall now presents approximately 160 events per season.

These focus on classical music from all eras, but also included in its eclectic programming can be found jazz, music of global cultures, crossover performances uniting various art forms, concerts linked to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ special exhibits, and youth concerts.

Bourgie Hall is special, even unique, in many ways. Let’s start with the architecture. The hall itself was reconfigured from the nave of one of Montreal’s venerable churches, the Erskine and American Church. This Romanesque Revival-style edifice was inaugurated in 1894 but closed its doors in 2004. Four years later, the city’s main art museum, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, which sits adjacent to the church, bought the building and reconstructed it into a concert hall.

The guiding spirit for this venture came from Quebec businessman, art collector, and philanthropist Pierre Bourgie, hence the hall’s name. Bourgie’s dual passion for music and the visual arts found its mark when he stepped forward as principal donor for the $42 million (Canadian) project. Bourgie also created the Arte Musica Foundation, which runs the concert hall and is in residence at the museum.

The hall has many stained-glass windows, including a Tiffany creation designed by Frederick Wilson titled ‘Angel.’ (Photo by Christine Guest)

Aside from a new entranceway, the exterior of the church remained intact, though inevitably some restoration work was needed. Inside, the nave was converted into a room that manages to suggest simultaneously both intimacy and spaciousness. On the floor are 332 seats arranged in 11 gently curved rows, and in the balcony 134 more seats in five rows. No floor seats lie beneath the balcony, ensuring perfect sightlines and perfect acoustics from every point in the hall.

Adding to the architectural beauty and special atmosphere of the hall are 81 stained-glass windows, 20 of them original Tiffany windows that earned the building a National Historical Site designation from the Department of Canadian Heritage. When fully illuminated through specially installed backlighting, the effect is nothing less than spectacular. Four of these windows are more than 10 feet high.

According to the hall’s descriptive booklet, “these windows constitute one of only two of the firm’s commissions for Canada, and one of the few surviving religious series by Tiffany in North America. They are characterized by a milky glass with iridescent, opalesque reflections.”

Bourgie chose for the hall’s first managing and artistic director Isolde Lagacé, who was ideally suited to the task with her background as former manager of three of Montreal’s important concert halls, and as a professional musician herself (harpsichordist). In addition, coming from a family of distinguished musicians (her mother had served as organist at the church years earlier), Lagacé had been building a network of contacts in the city’s musical community since childhood.

Over the course of her 12-year tenure at Bourgie Hall, Lagacé’s contribution to Montreal’s musical scene was exceptional (she stepped down in November 2022). Her crowning achievement was the first presentation of the complete Bach sacred-cantata series to be given to a paying audience in North America. (Julian Wachner presented the cantata series at Trinity Church in New York as free noontime concerts between 2014 and 2016.) 

Not even Covid stopped the momentum. The 77 concerts spread over eight seasons involved 33 ensembles, 321 instrumentalists under the direction of 29 conductors, 158 vocal and instrumental soloists, and four professional choirs. Lagacé also established Bourgie Hall as the main venue for the prestigious Montreal International Music Competition, which takes place annually, alternating piano, violin, and voice.

The roster of famous names that have appeared in Bourgie Hall is impressive: instrumentalists James Ehnes, Igor Levit, Gidon Kremer, Steven Isserlis, Michel Béroff, Marc-André Hamelin, Pepe Romero, and Evelyn Glennie; singers Ian Bostridge and Anne Sofie von Otter; conductors Kent Nagano, Hervé Niquet, Rafael Payare, and Christophe Rousset; and ensembles like the Tallis Scholars, Tafelmusik, the King’s Singers, Les Violons du Roy, and musicians from both of Montreal’s major orchestras, the Montreal Symphony and the Orchestre Métropolitain, just to get the list rolling. “As you build on your successes,” observed Lagacé, ”audiences keep asking for more, like wanting to hear one artist or the other perform again. That is also true for the performers, many of whom were eager to return to our stage.”

The hall owns an enviable array of keyboard instruments: a Model B (7-foot) and a Model D (9-foot)  Steinway, an 1859 fully restored Érard piano, a fortepiano built in 2020 in Maine based on early 19th-century Viennese models, two harpsichords, a clavicytherium (a keyboard instrument with a sound board and strings mounted upright facing the player), and two chamber organs built by Hellmuth Wolff. With a collection like this, it’s small wonder that Bourgie Hall has attracted so many period-instrument and early-music specialists.

Former managing and artistic director Isolde Lagacé

The beautifully designed season brochure is entitled Dare to Listen, and the eclectic programming found therein accurately reflects this moniker.

Some of the more intriguing offerings in the current season included a program devoted to songs by Ukrainian composers performed by Ukrainian baritone Ihor Mostovoi and pianist Serhiy Salov; composer and keyboardist Missy Mazzoli playing her own music with Jennifer Koh on electric violin; Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante for winds arranged for five soloists (the work exists in two versions: one with a solo quartet including flute, one including clarinet; bassoonist Mathieu Lussier combined them in his own version of the score); a whole program by an octet of double bassists; and tributes to French composer Théodore Dubois (marking the 100th anniversary of his death), to Rachmaninoff (five programs throughout the season marking the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1873, one including the Corelli Variations premiered by the composer himself in Montreal in 1931), and to Ligeti (a festival last November marking the centenary of his birth in 1923).

In keeping with the hall’s mandate for accessibility and its effort to attract the widest possible audience, ticket prices are kept low. The highest price for a single ticket is $76 (Canadian), decreasing to $26 depending on the event. (Top price for a Montreal Symphony concert runs to $227.) Museum members get a discount of about 15%, and persons 34 and under pay half the regular price. Subscriptions and group rates also entail considerable savings.

Bourgie Hall’s location on the premises of a major museum allows for ongoing discoveries of the interrelationships between music and the visual arts to a degree seldom found elsewhere. Major exhibitions at the museum are often given in association with music from the era of the exhibition’s artworks, and/or concerts designed to evoke the artworks themselves. The hall’s first season included a tribute to Lyonel Feininger, who was himself a composer as well as an artist. Subsequent seasons had programs built around Chagall, The Splendor of Venice during the 16th and 17th centuries, and Inuit works, among many others. The 2024-25 season will bring together music and art for the exhibition entitled Saints, Sinners, Lovers and Fools: Three Hundred Years of Flemish Masterworks. (The exhibition itself runs from June 8 to Oct. 20.)

Following in Lagacé’s footsteps will not be easy. Her job is now divided into the dual partnership of artistic director Olivier Godin and executive director Caroline Louis. Like Lagacé, they boast sterling credentials: Godin is a vocal coach and pianist with a discography that includes the complete songs of Poulenc, Fauré, Duparc, Dutilleux, and Massenet (333 of them!), with the complete Hahn chansons a work in progress. Louis has degrees in musicology and business administration, and is also a pianist. Together, they work out the complexities of a season that runs to nearly 100 concerts under the aegis of the Arte Musica Foundation, in addition to coordinating more than 60 additional concerts for “guest presenters” who rent the hall. These include the Montreal Bach Festival, the Arion Baroque Orchestra, the Fibonacci Trio, the Montreal Chamber Music Festival, and the Montreal International Musical Competition.

The hall owns an enviable array of keyboard instruments, including two Steinway concert grands. (Photo by Julia Marois)

As a follow-up to Lagacé’s historic Bach cantata series, Godin conceived the idea for a complete Schubert vocal series — not just the entire catalogue of Lieder with piano, but also vocal duets, quartets, choral numbers, and pieces with instrumental components. This mammoth project, with seven-to-ten concerts per season, will begin on Sept. 25 and is tentatively scheduled for completion in 2028, marking the 200th anniversary of the composer’s death. Another of Godin’s goals is to entice more top stars to Bourgie Hall, a venue that allows for the kind of intimacy between performer and audience that is impossible to achieve in a Carnegie Hall or an Elbphilharmonie. The lineup next season includes Leonidas Kavakos (Nov. 7), Barbara Hannigan (Nov. 26), Kirill Gerstein (Dec.  7), Christian Gerhaher (Jan. 28), and Steven Isserlis (Feb. 11). (More details here.)

Programming for 2024-25 is as eclectic and stimulating as the one coming to an end: a concert of bird-inspired music for harpsichord (Oct. 9); an entire program devoted to chamber music by Verdi and Puccini (Oct. 19); Inuit music (Nov. 6); Ravel’s complete solo piano music (Feb. 4 and March 19); Hamlet-inspired music from the Italian Baroque (March 8 & 9); Steve Reich’s complete works for string quartet (April 1); a 500th-anniversary tribute to Palestrina (April 2); and much more.

Shortly before she retired, Lagacé noted that “in England, you have Wigmore Hall, a venue comparable in size to ours, and whose history spans over a century. Ours is but a decade old, but I wonder what will it be like 50 years from now.” With Montrealers and visitors alike flocking to Bourgie Hall in increasing numbers, Lagacé’s vision has unequivocally become a glowing triumph.