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Organist Olivier Latry spins on his bench to acknowledge the crowd following his inauguration of the Pierre-Beique organ made by the Casavante Frere at the MSO in Montreal, May 28, 2014. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)
Organist Olivier Latry spins on his bench to acknowledge the crowd following his inauguration of the Pierre-Beique organ made by the Casavante Frere at the MSO in Montreal, May 28, 2014. (Christinne Muschi For the Globe and Mail)

Four-storey organ a star in Montreal Add to ...

A constellation of Quebec glitterati – artists, CEOs and politicians – turned out in tuxes and gowns in Montreal this week just to hear one lone, singular musical instrument.

Not just any instrument, of course. It’s four storeys high and has 6,489 pipes, and it looms over Montreal’s symphony concert hall like a titan.

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The Montreal Symphony Orchestra inaugurated a $4-million organ and, from the instrument’s first, scary chords of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor – familiar as a staple of camp horror movies – the sheer might of the pipes was inescapable.

Four years in the making, the new musical beast is the result of 40,000 hours of work by 82 Quebec craftsmen, who created something between a musical masterwork and a technological marvel. It is the centrepiece of the symphony hall known as the Maison symphonique, which was inaugurated in 2011.

“A concert hall like ours isn’t complete without a grand symphony organ. Now we’ve got one,” said former Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard, chairman of the board of the MSO. “It is, at least for now, the most advanced in the world. The technology is extraordinary.”

Crafted by legendary Quebec organ-makers Casavant Frères, it is the largest symphony organ in the country and puts Montreal on par with such organ capitals as Paris and Prague, proponents say. Organs may not be trendiest of instruments – not surprising for something played by the Romans when gladiators entered the arena, and often associated with funerals – but the acquisition is not being taken lightly. The new Quebec culture minister, Hélène David, called the instrument nothing short of a “milestone in the cultural history of Quebec.”

Quebec is considered the cradle of organs in North America, the instruments having been brought to New France in the 17th century. At one time, organ chords resonated in every town and village in a church-going province.

For Mr. Bouchard, typical of his generation, organ music was an integral part of his youth.

“My mother was an organist in parishes in Lac St. Jean,” Mr. Bouchard recalled in an interview before the concert. “She played the organ for 25 years, and we went with her, we sang at funerals, marriages, at vespers and mass.”

The aural memories stayed with him, and the former premier helped champion the MSO organ project. “I said to myself, if my mother was alive, she would have loved to see this organ,” he said.

Yet despite the organ’s roots, it’s a safe bet that most people who heard organ music in Quebec this week were nowhere near a pew. Instead, organs provided the soundtrack in Montreal’s secular temples – places such as the Bell Centre during Tuesday night’s Habs victory, and then in the city’s downtown concert hall.

There, organ pipes are arrayed before the audience like a glistening waterfall on the hall façade, behind the orchestra (the façade is the work of architects Diamond Schmitt in collaboration with Casavant Frères and Aedifica). But the visible pipes represent only 2 per cent of the entire instrument, most of which is hidden Wizard of Oz-like to the concert-going public. All told, the behemoth tilts the scale at 25 tons.

The concert by the MSO under conductor Kent Nagano, with organist Olivier Latry, ended with a prolongued standing ovation in a crowd that included such major cultural figures as Gilles Vigneault, Denys Arcand and Robert Lepage. The organ was a gift of arts patron Jacqueline Desmarais, the widow of businessman Paul Desmarais.

Editor's Note: The original print version of this article and an earlier online version contained incomplete information about the visual design of the façade. It was the work of architects Diamond Schmitt in collaboration with Casavant Frères and Aedifica. This online version has been corrected.

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