Conservatoire de musique de Montréal: A Family Celebration

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On March 30, 2024, the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal (CMM) commemorates eight decades of excellence with a celebratory concert consisting of a program steeped in surprising solemnity and gravitas.

“I didn’t know this program would be chosen for the 80th anniversary,” admits Jean-Marie Zeitouni, the conductor of the CMM Symphony Orchestra since 2021. Wishing to pay tribute to a tradition of concerts bringing together choir and orchestra during the Easter season when he was still a student at CMM, Zeitouni envisioned a theme centred on reflection and mourning.

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“These concerts are among the most vivid and significant memories of my training,” recalls the former chorister turned internationally renowned conductor. It was during one of these events that Zeitouni discovered Francis Poulenc’s Stabat Mater, the cornerstone of the anniversary concert. “I discovered the utopia of having 150 or 200 voices performing as one with an orchestra. … That experience was decisive for me.”

Pierre Mercure (Photo provided)

With such impressive proportions in mind, CMM Director Manon Lafrance conceived the idea of organizing the anniversary concert around the program proposed by Zeitouni for Easter Eve. Oscillating between light and darkness, the program also includes Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song, Pierre Mercure’s Cantate pour une joie, and a composition by CMM student Florence Tremblay. The lineup includes the choristers of Les Petits Chanteurs de Laval; the vocal ensembles Phœbus and Gaïa; as well as the Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of the CMM.

In celebration of a historic moment, the event gathers a tightly knit community, explains composer and professor Nicolas Gilbert. “There is a strong sense of belonging both for teachers and students. I think that an anniversary for the Conservatoire is a kind of family celebration.” For another CMM graduate, soprano Karina Gauvin, the fact that her parents met there as students adds a very personal dimension. “It’s a beautiful gift to be able to be here, to celebrate, and to sing these works,” she says.

The March 30th program also pays tribute to a famous former student, composer Pierre Mercure. A few years after graduating from the composition class of 1949, Mercure wrote his Cantate pour une joie for soprano, choir, and orchestra. “It’s a language that I find truly luminous—a quest for human joy,” confides the renowned soprano.

Alongside Mercure’s is a work by Florence Tremblay, a graduating master’s student in composition at the CMM. The intriguing title of her work, Les détours nécessaires (The Necessary Detours), alludes to the world of video games but also suggests that sometimes, in life, the most successive path is not always the necessary or obvious one to take.

A curious parallel emerges between Tremblay’s première and the oldest work on the program, Igor Stravinsky’s Funeral Song which dates back to 1908. First performed in Montreal in 2022 by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain, the piece will carry a sense of novelty for most listeners and will take on “almost the flavour of a première,” says Zeitouni.

The core of the program is undoubtedly Francis Poulenc’s Stabat Mater. “Poulenc’s music is always ambitious and challenging,” says Roseline Blain, who directs two of the five choirs joining forces for the concert.

The Stabat Mater requires the subdivision of male voices into three parts instead of the standard two. Written “for male voices with the support of female voices … It deconstructs our usual listening patterns through a new conception of music,” explains Blain, director of the Phœbus (male voices) and Gaïa (female voices) Ensembles.

In addition to the rare five-part division, the Stabat Mater displays certain stylistic peculiarities. “Poulenc is often described as being both a monk and a rascal,” says choir conductor Philippe Ostiguy. “There is an austere aspect to his writing and, at the same time, we find these shimmering harmonies which carry his smoky-pub melodic type of writing—cabaret-like—even if it’s set to a sacred text. The challenge in terms of musical interpretation is to quickly alternate from one style to another in a very short time.”

The choirs directed by Ostiguy include three ensembles of young choristers ages 8 to 33, a group of approximately 120 choristers, to which will be added the 35-member CMM Choir which Ostiguy has been conducting for the past three years.

Each group is rehearsing separately until they come together under the baton of Jean-Marie Zeitouni one week before the concert. “I will try to create a musical identity for people who will become leaders and will each be responsible for musical interpretation, accuracy, phrasing, and articulation,” he says.

The conductor is proud that the spotlight for celebrating the Conservatoire’s 80th anniversary will shine on young talent. “It’s about discovering new works, unique experiences, and, for many, the concert hall of the Maison symphonique. It’s all about offering wonderfully creative opportunities for young talents, giving them a setting and a structure to celebrate their gift, their initiative, and their creativity.” Remaining true to the mission it embarked on since its foundation, the octogenarian Conservatoire de musique de Montréal is set for a promising future.

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