Pianist Jean-Michel Blais will present his album Aubades in a symphonic version next week. It will also take the public on a journey through the music that inspired them, an instructive journey which will take place in the excellent company of the Agora Orchestra and its conductor, Nicolas Ellis.

Jean-Michel Blais and Nicolas Ellis met about four years ago. But when we meet them together at the Maison symphonique, where the concerts on January 11 and 12 will take place, we would believe them to be childhood friends, they are so complicit, between the jokes they constantly throw at each other and the obvious mutual respect.

“I’ve been watching what you’re doing with the Agora for a long time,” confides Jean-Michel Blais. I have a memory of seeing you with your scores in a café where I worked, I was fascinated, you played the young conductor who was studying. » “Were you stalking me? ” They laugh.

These surprising confidences of “masked admiration” show to what extent they were made to work together. This happened when Nicolas Ellis led the musicians who played on Aubades, the magnificent orchestral album by Jean-Michel Blais released in 2021.

They have been talking for more than a year about this symphony concert, which is an opportunity to meet again and meet up. Jean-Michel Blais is coming off a big year of international touring of 80 dates. “It was intense, but awesome! » As for Nicolas Ellis, who at 32 is a rising star in the music world, he has just been appointed artistic director of the Orchester national de Bretagne.

“Next year, I have projects in Finland, Luxembourg, Belgium, and also in France where I will return regularly. I’m at a point in my career where a lot of things are going to happen. »

This symphonic concert will mark the end of the Aubades cycle – it will also be presented in March in Quebec with the Orchester symphonique de Québec (OSQ), conducted by Dina Gilbert. Last year, Jean-Michel Blais reduced the pieces from the album to a simplified piano-voice version. They will now experience their climax, “in the climax” of an orchestra of nearly 50 musicians. “It was the nature of the work to bring it there,” says the 39-year-old pianist and composer. But that wasn’t enough for him.

“It’s a guilty pleasure, but we’re here with an orchestra, it’s not true that I’m just going to contemplate my own arranged pieces. »

The composer was inspired by a host of pieces from the classical repertoire to compose Aubades, it was normal to include a few of them and to explain why. The concert will establish a parallel between the eras by interweaving them.

For Nicolas Ellis, the objective is not so much educational. It is rather a way of showing how composers have always appropriated the works of others, and above all, of “getting into the head” of Jean-Michel Blais. “It’s an introspection with the works of Debussy, Satie, Rachmaninov, which will be in dialogue with his music. It’s a unique journey, with the flavor of Jean-Michel, that we will be able to experience. »

If you want to make Nicolas Ellis angry, talk to him about the “democratization” of classical music. “I hate this word to death, because I have trouble finding a more democratic form of art. »Whether it is the meeting between Fred Pellerin and the OSM or that of Jean-Michel Blais with the Agora, diversity is everywhere now, he recalls.

Jean-Michel Blais agrees, but he noted during his European tour that the environment is more advanced here than there. “They are surprised when I tell them about our concert, or Fred Pellerin’s story with the OSM, for example. We have greater freedom, perhaps because we have less of the weight of tradition. For once, in North America, we are at the forefront. »

He also hopes that both his fans and the regulars of the Maison symphonique will be there next week, for this unique concert whose arrangements will be signed by François Vallières. And he appreciates the openness that Nicolas Ellis had from the start. What does he like about the conductor’s job? ” Nothing ! » They laugh a lot.

“This complicity is important. With my past as a speaker, when I look at what he created with the Agora, his involvement in social projects, what I see is authenticity, truthfulness. Nico is daring, a go-getter, he’s a leather hand in an iron glove…”

Jean-Michel Blais hesitates, he is reminded that the correct expression is “an iron fist in a velvet glove”. “Ah yes, iron, it’s a bit strong… In any case, it’s solid, it has a softness, and the musicians respect it, not because they’re afraid, but because it creates a pleasant climate. »

Nicolas Ellis protests. “No no, they’re scared! » New burst of laughter. And what does he like about Jean-Michel Blais’ music? “Lyricism. The piano is not like a violin or a wind instrument, where you can support the sound and bring it to life. I find that Jean-Michel does that in his music. And from a technical point of view, it has a very nice, coated sound. It’s very personal music. »

Jean-Michel Blais will retire in 2024 to compose his new album, which will be released “we don’t know when”. But he doesn’t know what’s coming in the coming months, other than he’s planned a day off!

“We finish the Aubades cycle on a high note, it keeps our minds busy. It’s difficult to be intense in the present and to project yourself. » For now, he is looking forward to the concert, and even closer, to the rehearsals. “It’s exciting to find out how it’s going to sound. Even if you have the scores, there is nothing like a real orchestra. »

“You’re going to cry,” slips Nicolas Ellis. Jean-Michel Blais does not contradict him. “It’s going to be emotional. »