Jacques Lacombe and the MSO are ready for liftoff


“In my normal life I spend my time either in front of an orchestra or at an airport,” Jacques Lacombe said Tuesday, recounting an observation he made during a rehearsal earlier that day with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. “This time I’ll do both.”

The reference was to what will presumably be the first public concert ever given at Parking Lot P-5 of Trudeau Airport. The program on Wednesday night includes Beethoven’s celebrated Fifth Symphony.

All licensed drivers and their passengers are welcome to pay the $100-per-vehicle price of admission. Parking definitely included.

The notion of a drive-in is not unprecedented as a solution the COVID-19 problem. The Vilnius International Film Festival was showing movies at the airport of the Lithuanian capital as early as April 29. The Royalmount Drive-In Event Theatre has been doing a steady business in Montreal.

Still, an airport parking lot does not suggest itself as an obvious setting for the glories of the Western canon. The “Classical Flight” is certainly a maiden voyage for the MSO.

Take note that there are First Class and Business Class options at $500 and $250. If those fares seem high, remember that there is no maximum of listeners per vehicle, provided they are from the same household. The concert is billed as a benefit.

Lacombe, 57, artistic director of the Orchestre symphonique de Mulhouse in France but a Montrealer by force since the outbreak of the pandemic, expects a setup along the lines of the MSO’s famous park concerts. He has conducted a few of these in his long association with the orchestra, which he served as principal guest conductor from 2002 to 2006.

“We are used to playing outdoors,” he said from the MSO offices. “But what is going to be strange is playing in front of an audience of cars. You don’t see the public. That’s is going to be interesting.”

There will be giant screens and some external amplification, but sound will be transmitted from stage to automobile mainly through the agency of an FM signal – as it is in standard cinematic drive-ins.

People are expected to stay in their cars for the duration of the 63-minute program. There is no intermission.

The MSO contacted Lacombe in June with the novel idea. The orchestra wanted “a real concert” rather than a pops-y miscellany. With or without the coronavirus, 2020 is the Beethoven year. That was one reason Lacombe suggested the Fifth.

Another was its famous strife-to-victory trajectory. “A metaphor for what we have been through since March,” Lacombe said. “So much passion. Going through this journey and finishing with victory and joy.”

The program starts with Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute. Then come selections from this opera as sung by soprano Hélène Guilmette and baritone Jean-François Lapointe. Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin follows, as a reminder of the importance of French music in the MSO tradition, then two excerpts from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Beethoven provides the finale.

One of a few unknowns is how the audience will express enthusiasm. Honking horns might be the easiest option.

The singers jokingly worry that such a demonstration might mess with their sense of pitch. “What if the honking horns are in D flat major?” Lacombe asks.

As head of conducting at the Montreal Conservatoire, Lacombe will be heard again in the 2020-21 season, although not publicly with the Conservatoire Orchestra before March. A big choral event with the MSO had been planned for October. COVID-19 put the kibosh on that.

Lacombe returns to Mulhouse in September for recordings and concerts. Europe has been more liberal in its approach to public performance than jurisdictions on this side of the Atlantic.

One interesting complication for a conductor who lives in Montreal is the need to quarantine on returning to Canada. No such stipulation is made in France.

Performances in 2021 of Britten’s Death in Venice are on the books – for now.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the opera world,” Lacombe says. “There in no way you can put an orchestra in the pit.”

In any case, his mind is on the concert of the moment, the first for a live public the MSO has given in a while.

“Is freedom the right word?” Lacombe asks, trying to explain the atmosphere in rehearsal. “Relief? It is hard to explain.

“It was a big relief, the pleasure of being together. That is one of the strong messages that I hope we will learn from what we went through: the importance of contact with people who listen.”

The OSM Classical Flight concert starts Wednesday Aug. 5 at 9 p.m. Go to www.osm.ca.


About Author

Arthur Kaptainis has been a classical music critic since 1986. His articles have appeared in Classical Voice North America and La Scena Musicale as well as Musical Toronto. Arthur holds an MA in musicology from the University of Toronto. Since 2019, Arthur is co-editor of La Scena Musicale.

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