Éric Champagne is a tall, approachable fellow. Behind a gentle and jovial manner lurks a composer with an astonishing faculty of assimilation. This is made clear by listening to just a few scattered samplings of his composition catalogue (see the Canadian Music Center website). For example, the opera Miss Julie (based on Strindberg’s play) comes to mind, with its syllabic treatment consistently connected to the drama, the balance of sound effects and the wide instrumental palette. Thirty years ago, some said the “synthesis of styles” would be left to future generations. Mission accomplished: Champagne draws extensively from the repertoire, from Tchaikovsky and Mahler to John Adams, via Vivier and Longtin (one of his very first mentors), to create his own style. A student of electroacoustics in CÉGEP (“I treat sound as morphology”), Champagne pursued his musical training with François-Hugues Leclair at Université de Montréal. Both master and pupil share a similar ideal: the musical work as a “cultural legacy”.
Denis Gougeon dissuaded him from pursuing a doctorate, saying, “You know how to compose”. And our young composer went on to a successful career.
His 60-plus works are performed regularly in Canada, the United States, Europe and even in India. He won the 2014 Opus Découverte prize, and the 2014 CALQ prize for his Symphony No.1, which was premiered by the Orchestre Métropolitain in March 2014.
His latest work was commissioned by the Société philharmonique de Montréal to mark the 375th anniversary of Montreal, his hometown. It is a Te Deum for orchestra, choir and soloists; 45 minutes of music modeled on Roger Matton’s Te Deum, in which Latin text alternates with the vernacular of Félix-Antoine Savard. Champagne commissioned four authors to write about Montréal, providing a contemporary point of view ranging from the tragic (Patrick Lafontaine) to the comical (Hector Ruiz). As the composer explains: “The Jesuits’ correspondence reports that a Te Deum was sung during the first Mass of Consecration to the Virgin Mary [hence the name Ville-Marie], celebrated in the presence of Maisonneuve on the island of Montreal.” The premiere of the “Montreal” Te Deum is scheduled for this Good Friday. It will be performed by the orchestra of the Société philharmonique de Montréal (celebrating its 35th anniversary), the UQÀM Choir and the choir of the Joseph-François-Perrault School, under the bâton of Pascal Côté.
It opens with four rough-textured chords written for trumpets; a device borrowed from another Te Deum, that of Hungarian composer Kodály, as a tribute to SPM’s founder, the late Miklós Takács. The work will be performed again at Carnegie Hall on June 5, where Takács had performed, notably with the UQÀM choir. The work is in three parts. The note D is the unifying element. “For its radiance,” says the composer. There is a sequence of three modes transposed on D: B flat, C, and D major. “The chord of colour” (Champagne’s own expression), a sort of variant of Scriabin’s “mystical chord” (major chord with augmented fifth and major seventh) serves as an “open and luminous” harmony. Alternating between tonality and atonality, the very “French” sounds are reminiscent of Thierry Escaich and Philippe Hersant. The 7/8 rhythm of the Sanctus marks a light movement: agogic displacement of a pulsation, borrowed from Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms. Shimmering harmonies in the chord sequence initiate the finale. Intertwining of the vocal and instrumental parts, like spring blossoms announcing happy days. This is one of the work’s achievements. The stacked fifths based on D evoke an elevation, a movement towards “something better”, that “something which opens up onto the spiritual, the absolute.” Although Champagne approaches the sacred here as a “cultural object,” he relates more to the festive aspect of the celebration. The first mass in Montreal was sung in May. Likewise, Champagne’s Te Deum leads us towards the joy of summer, through the words of René-Daniel Dubois, from his play Bob. It is the royal summer, a magnificent, resplendent summer afternoon.
This work is the composer’s first major commission for a choral ensemble. The choir is treated as a “sound mass.” The Latin text is arranged with a freestyle prosody, in a manner similar to Poulenc. The declamatory rhythm shapes the interplay of timbres. The 120 members of the UQÀM Choir, who are used to classical works, have gradually become accustomed to the work’s rhythmic novelties. “The more they work on it, the more they appreciate it,” says Champagne. Thus, the work ends on a promise of an upcoming “luminous summer” reminiscent of the ascensional universe in another one of his works, Vers les astres, commissioned and premiered by the Orchestre Métropolitain, under conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
His plans for the future include a street opera performed by the singers of the Atelier lyrique de Montréal, to benefit Action-Réinsertion Le Sac à dos, which helps the marginalized and the homeless, some of whom will be involved in writing the libretto, or as extras on stage. Éric Champagne is composer-in-residence at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur until 2018. Champagne humbly declares that his merit rests solely on the fruit of his labors. Modest, but regal.
Éric Champagne Grand concert Vendredi saint, 14 avril, 20 h, Église Saint-Jean- Baptiste (Montréal). With Orchestre de la société Philharmonique de Montréal www.philharmontreal.com & June 5 at Carnegie Hall (New York), with the Manhattan Philharmonic Orchestra www.carnegiehall.org