André Gagnon, 1936-2020

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This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

André Gagnon, the Quebec composer and pianist whose individual fusion of pop and classical idioms made him internationally popular, died on Dec. 3 at age 84. A statement on the website of his record label, Audiogram, said the cause was Lewy body dementia.

A native of Saint-Pacôme in the south-shore Kamouraska region of Quebec, Gagnon studied piano (Germaine Malépart) and composition (Clermont Pépin) at the Montreal Conservatoire from 1957 to 1961 and even took lessons in Paris with the French pianist Yvonne Loriod.

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In a 1989 interview Gagnon said that a show by the French dancer Zizi Jeanmaire in Paris got him thinking about steering his career toward popular music.

“It wasn’t just ballet, it was a complete, Shirley MacLaine kind of thing,” Gagnon said. “So I told Loriod about this decision, and she said, ‘Oh, maybe you are right, this is what you should do.’ When she agreed so easily, I thought, ‘My God, maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a concert pianist.’”

Nonetheless, Gagnon found steady work in Montreal as an accompanist. And in point of fact he remained capable of playing classical repertoire (including Mozart with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) at a professional level.

But Gagnon’s career as a touring performer was taking off. His lyrical style had broad appeal, especially in Japan.

Gagnon also enjoyed success as a film composer and recording artist. Among his popular albums in the 1970s were NeigesSurpriseLe Saint-Laurent and Mouvements.

Perhaps his most ambitious project was the opera Nelligan, an flashback treatment of the Quebec poet Émile Nelligan with a libretto by Michel Tremblay. Characteristically, the score occupied an evocative middle ground between pop and classical.

“It is sung by pop singers who have been retrained as classical singers,” Gagnon explained before the 1990 premiere by the Opéra de Montréal. “They have been working with a vocal coach for some months.

“Of course, those singers remain pop singers. We don’t have Mirella Freni or Plácido Domingo in the cast. But at the same time, there is no pop connotation in the way they are singing. At least I hope not.”

In the same interview he commented on his personal style: “I can say it is quite different than Andrew Lloyd Webber. It is not distant in overall approach, I suppose, but the writing is very different than Evita or any other work of his I know.

“Yet at the same time it is not bel canto, it is not Verdi, it is not Puccini. Verdi stopped writing over 100 years ago. I must write now.”

Gagnon for many years was the owner of Nelligan’s greystone on St. Louis Square. While his touring schedule slowed after the 1990s, Gagnon continued to compose. In 2013 he collaborated again with Tremblay in the song cycle Lettres de Madame Roy à sa fille Gabrielle. The classical performers were contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux and the Orchestre symphonique de Trois-Rivières under Jacques Lacombe.

This page is also available in / Cette page est également disponible en: Francais (French)

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