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Music Cultural faux pas: Why Quebec’s music conservatories aren’t going without a fight

Yannick Nézet-Séguin is a classical-music superstar, both in Quebec and internationally, and studied at the Conservatoire’s Montreal branch.

Christina Alonso

Months of hearings at the Charbonneau inquiry into the corrupt handling of public contracts couldn't provoke Quebeckers to more than a collective shrug. But the mere rumour that five regional music conservatories might close to tame a $14-million deficit prompted an instant wave of protest.

No official word of any closings had reached the public when the issue hit the province's front pages, driven by letters of complaint from prominent musicians, a petition signed by 30,000 people, and musical demonstrations at the provincial legislature.

Culture minister Hélène David rushed to stem the fury last week, saying she "completely dissociated" herself from any thought of closing the schools, and would personally attend to the fate of the Conservatoire de musique et d'art dramatique du Québec.

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She even took the stage at Montreal's Maison symphonique to assure the audience at the season-opening concert of Orchestre Métropolitain that the system that nurtured talents such as OM conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin would be protected.

Why all the fuss over the idea of shuttered conservatories, yet no active response when the Charbonneau Commission shone a light, however feeble, on hundreds of millions of skimmed public dollars? Because while Quebeckers have a fatalistic attitude toward corruption, they are passionately devoted to the culture of celebrity.

For many Canadians, conservatories have a mild, apple-pie allure as places where children can spend their Saturday mornings learning to play Clair de lune. In Quebec, however, a crop of star musicians has forged a powerful link in the public mind between piano lessons in Rimouski and Quebec's cultural prowess in the world.

David's reference to Nézet-Séguin at Maison symphonique wasn't just a courtesy to the man waiting to conduct Mahler's Symphony No. 10. Nézet-Séguin is a classical-music superstar, both in Quebec and internationally. He studied at the Conservatoire's Montreal branch, honed his talent with OM, and is now music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He's the most successful conductor to come out of Canada and Quebec since Wilfrid Pelletier, who helped found the Conservatoire in 1942.

Nézet-Séguin was one of the musical luminaries – contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux was another – who wrote letters in support of the Conservatoire's regional branches. The most common line of defence for everyone else was to say that without the regional schools, the next Lemieux or Nézet-Séguin might never be discovered.

Unlike the Charbonneau Commission, whose proceedings transfixed the public but yielded no results, the fracas du conservatoire brought a swift denouement for those seen to have provoked it. Nicolas Desjardins and Jean-Pierre Bastien, the Conservatoire's director-general and president, respectively, both submitted their resignations this week over the affair.

Bastien had been on the job for less than four months, and was appointed by the same minister – David – who happily bid him adieu. His faux pas was to sign a board report – still not made public – that recommended school closings.

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For the moment, David looks like the avenging angel sent to save the day. But the province launched the first act of this drama when it changed the Conservatoire from a government department to a semi-autonomous corporation in 2007. It essentially told the school to start paying more of its own way, in a province where charitable donations are by far the lowest per capita in the country.

The Conservatoire had no hard experience in fundraising; its modest, 30-year-old foundation exists to provide scholarships and buy instruments for students.

Bastien was appointed with the explicit mandate of curbing the deficit built up over seven years of semi-autonomous operation. His preferred remedy has been rejected as a "great disappointment" to the minister, and now he and Desjardins are gone.

Now what? Will the Conservatoire's new defender in government give these schools the means to survive that they obviously lacked in 2007? One thing we know for sure: Quebec's culture of celebrity will not let them go without a fight.

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