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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

INTERVIEW | Jean-Philippe Tremblay: Singing the praises of smaller Mahler

Par Arthur Kaptainis le 31 juillet, 2018

Fantôme de l'opéra, Monument-National
Jean-Philippe Tremblay, music director, l’Orchestre de la Francophonie. (Crédit: Inès Jussaume)

When I spoke to Jean-Philippe Tremblay a few weeks ago, there were 20 tickets left for Le Fantôme de l’Opéra.

“A different crowd,” said the founder of the Orchestre de la Francophonie. “It was not the hardest thing to sell.”

Particularly not in the intimate Monument-National. Mahler’s Third Symphony, which concludes the OF season on Aug. 5, is another sort of undertaking. Particularly in the Maison symphonique.

“Lots of horns, lots of trombones, it’s a big one,” Tremblay comments.

Yet not quite as big as it usually is. Tremblay will perform the score of 1896 in the 1913 reduction by Erwin Stein, 1885-1958, a composer and essayist who knew Mahler personally.

The list of instruments and voices does not suggest economy: triple woodwinds, five horns (more precisely, four plus an assistant), three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, two harps, two sets of timpani, seven percussionists, 48 female choristers, 22 children, a moderate complement of strings and a vocal soloist, mezzo-soprano Kristina Szabó.

While the crowd count is surely lower than it was the last time the score was performed in Montreal, by the OSM under Zubin Mehta in 2015, five unison horns instead of eight will probably sound impressive enough in the opening.

“We have a good tool in our hands, which is the Maison symphonique,” comments the 40-year-old native of Chicoutimi. “This is the best place to do something that needs a little more help from the hall.”

Another plus is an ensemble drawn from three continents, including some likely future stars. Jasmine Lavariega, the 19-year-old principal horn, is a student at the Juilliard School in New York.

“We get more and more auditions from the big schools in the States,” Tremblay says. “It’s very hard for us to say no to these amazing players.”

Not that Canadians are neglected. Tremblay reckons that a little more than half of the players are from Canada, including the concertmaster, Patrice Calixte of Montreal.

Other young musicians (the age limit is 30) hail from France, Belgium and Switzerland – not surprisingly since French, as the name of the orchestra implies, is the lingua franca of rehearsal. There is a cellist from Brazil.

Linguistic virtuosity is not mandatory. Tremblay sometimes slips into the language of Shakespeare when addressing individual American and English Canadian players. But the basic instructions are given in French.


“Most of the time I don’t translate when I say, ‘Let’s start at bar 15’. They’re always there. We don’t expect players to leave with fluent French, but we at least give them a basis for the business of music, for rehearsing in a French orchestra.” – Jean-Philippe Tremblay


A grand finale of a summer season

Mahler is the grand finale of a summer season with many parts. It began in June with Pelléas et Mélisande at the Festival Classica in Saint-Lambert (repeated in the Palais Montcalm for l’Opéra de Québec on July 29).

There have been purely instrumental concerts as well. No less a guitarist than Pepe Romero played Rodrigo’s Concierto d’Aranjuez at the Domaine Forget. This program included Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, Esquisse pour orchestre, the Op. 1 of the late François Morel, and Lumières, Reflets et Ombres by Alexandre David. A program for the Francofolies in Montreal was given over to André Mathieu as an observation of the 50th anniversary of the death of that post-romantic pianist and composer. Alain Lefèvre, his latter-day disciple, was guest soloist.

Whatever the repertoire, youthful enthusiasm is the norm. “The string section sounded twice as big,” Tremblay says of the Tchaikovsky at the Domaine Forget. “It was amazing.”

The OF is now a regular presence in the programming of the venerable Concerts populaires in the Centre Pierre-Charbonneau. This summer the guest soloist was soprano Marie-Josée Lord.

“The acoustics are not perfect, but there is something about the human side of those concerts,” Tremblay said. “I always enjoy it there.”

But back to Mahler.

Tremblay believes this will be a Canadian premiere of the Stein reduction, although he cannot say for certain. Rather surprisingly, the Universal Edition publishing house could not provide information about which organizations have rented the (rather costly) parts over the years.

While not as radically reduced as the Mahler Second Symphony Tremblay and only 56 OF players performed at the Maison symphonique in 2016, the Stein Mahler Third for 76 instrumentalists does involve some redistribution.

“He’s very creative,” Tremblay says of this Schoenberg pupil, who was forced out of his native Vienna in 1938 and settled in London. “He really has a knowledge of instrumentation and colours.”

There is no reduction in the number of bars, so expect the performance to last 90 or 95 minutes. Mahler’s Third is the longest symphony in the standard repertoire. Getting it into shape includes a day of sectionals, two days of rehearsals with all the forces and a dress on the day of performance. Martin Boucher is preparing the choir.

Aug. 5 is not an optimal afternoon for this performance. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Orchestre Métropolitain are playing Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony at the Fernand Lindsay Amphitheatre for the Festival de Lanaudière.

“I know,” Tremblay says with a sigh. “This is the second time this happens with Lanaudière. The only day Maison symphonique had for us in the whole summer was that Sunday. When we took it in January, the Lanaudière schedule wasn’t out. We hoped it was a week later or before, but you never know.”

Mahler or Shostakovich, Tremblay or Nézet-Séguin, OF or OM, town or country. At least we have choices.

L’Orchestre de la Francophonie performs Mahler’s Third Symphony on Aug. 5 at 2:30 p.m. TICKETS


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