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Jean Derome, Scott's Trombone and 'Art of the Fugue' -- Kurt Gottschalk's Weekend in Montreal

By Kurt Gottschalk on Feb 28, 2016 02:53 AM EST

A weekend in Montreal--at least one like that of November 20, into which I was fortunate enough to air-drop--can seem like a build-your-own festival. Canada loves its fests. And Montreal has more of them than any other city in the country, with over 100 arts, comedy, food and fashion fêtes across the year.

While the premiere of the Opéra de Montreal's production of Elektra was the reason for my visit, I was also able to attend the opening concert of the city's Bach Festival and a couple of concerts in the city's fertile (and under recognized) jazz scene. Most everything happens within walking distance of downtown. And meal breaks at Foodlab in the impressive Société des Arts Technologiques building (an excellent gnocchi with roasted Brussels sprout leaves) and the tasty Qing Hua Dumpling in nearby Chinatown, a weekend in downtown Montreal proved to be as enjoyable as it was easily navigable.

The first night had me happily making my way to a concert in the stubbornly 13-month L'Année Jean Derome celebration (continuing through June) of one of the key figures in the city's longstanding Ambiances Magnetiques collective. Derome and his wife, Joane Hétu, consistently create charming and inventive music.

And while Derome doesn't look much older than 50, he has apparently been performing for 40 years.

He's been marking the occasion with several concerts a month, in a festival all his own.

On the agenda for the night of the 20th was Phèdre de Racine, sans paroles--a piece Derome wrote 20 years ago and only performed once. Eight improvisers from the Ensemble SuperMusique (along with Hétu's a cappella octet, Joker) seemed to follow open-ended directives. Under Hétu's direction, the chorus sang and sounded parts that seemed to be scripted more than scored: sing a low note, make clicking sounds, whisper, etc. Instrumentalists entered the stage of the lovely 425-seat Amphithéâtre-Gesù in the 1865 Church of the Gesù to play for a few minutes at a time; and exit again, generally, in solo or duo with the chorus providing cushion.

It made for a rewarding 90 minutes of structured exploration.

Scott Thomson, the trombonist in Derome's ensemble, played again the following morning at an advertised 9:04 a.m. The recital, part of a three-week run of off-hour solo sets he was doing, was in a dance studio in an old industrial building. It's in a part of the Mile End neighborhood, filled with tech start-ups and design studios.

And I was, in fact, the only person in attendance. (No doubt, some with later start times were bigger draws.)

I arrived after the appointed hour, being spoiled by the frequency of New York City mass transit, and quietly opened the door. Thomson lowered his horn long enough to give me a quick "bonjour," before returning to blowing long, wavering tones. The extended technique workout included nicely varied use of tapping and percussive buzzing from the mute, which was making contact with the bell of the horn.

It turned out I wasn't late, however, because--as he explained to me after he'd finished playing--the music changes when someone is listening. (An answer, perhaps to the old adage about a trombonist squalling in the woods when no one is around; or, if a more scientific approach is preferred, a sort of musical Heisenberg principle.)

It wouldn't have been possible for me to be late, since the music he played before I got there, well, he wouldn't have played had I been there. The concert only began with my arrival.

To my great fortune, the last day of my stay fell on the first day of the two-week Festival Bach Montreal, but with the added misfortune of the only two concerts of the day happening at the same time. I opted for organ over cantatas; it was hard to argue against the Art of the Fugue in the majestic St. Joseph's Oratoire Saint Joseph du Mont-Royal.

While no rival to the sublime beauty of the city's Notre-Dame Basilica, St. Joseph's is awe-inspiring in its stature.

Completed in 1967, after 40 years of construction, the church sits high atop a hill in the Côté des Neiges borough. It was a long climb up to the basilica, part of it now abetted by escalators, where the American James Daniel Christie played Bach's unfinished masterpiece at the enormous, 5,811-pipe organ. Christie did so quite beautifully--giving it expression, without losing Bach's all-important pulse, with a happy fondness for trumpet stops.

The recital was given with screens set up, so Christie's hands could be watched--the organ, of course, being in the loft in the back of the church--a reasonable concession for people who want to watch the performer. Although, the setup broke the illusion of the music coming from nowhere. Or, from on high.

Certainly, the church had plenty to look at, anyway. But the screens did allow for a surreal moment, when a second pair entered the scene for the Contrapunctus XIII "mirror" fugue--via Christie's own arrangement.

One other musical surprise awaited me during my short stay, which occurred when trying to negotiate my way through the Complexe Desjardins shopping mall, a part of the famous "underground city," which connected to my hotel. The shops were closed. Yet, the less-than-modest Christmas displays were still in full effect, as I and a handful of others made use of the passageways.

The vacuous space was filled with holiday music. Not simply piped in, but tailored to the space; swooshing around a rather powerful audio system, complete with swirling wind sound effects. At precisely 10 p.m., suddenly, it went silent. Enough to nearly knock me over. This, though, was mere prelude to Santa's arrival outside the mall the following afternoon--always a big parade, in a city that loves to celebrate.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, REVIEW, Kurt Gottschalk, Jean Derome, Scott Thomson, Bach, Montreal, James Daniel Christie