It’s not every day that you attend a concert in a Benedictine monastery. It’s not every day that we experience a moment of grace like the concert of the Studio de musique vieille de Montréal (SMAM) on Saturday afternoon given as part of the Orford Music Festival.
The abbey church of the monastery of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac, an architectural jewel set in the hollow of the two northern branches of Lake Memphremagog, in Estrie, has some 400 places, which were all occupied. Not to hear the ancient chanting of the monks, but that of ten professional singers handpicked “for the purity and clarity of their voices”, as the program specified, which unfortunately did not give the names of these true singing athletes. .
Arranged in a semi-circle at the entrance to the choir of monks in front of their leader Andrew McAnerney, they proposed an anthology of pieces from the Renaissance (between the years 1460 and 1560 in this case) having as common point to commemorate the disappearance great musical figures of the time.
We thus have two tributes – from the Flemings Benedictus Appenzeller and Hieronymus Vinders – to Josquin des Prés, who had done the same for Ockeghem, and the latter for Binchois…
It would have been useful to have some explanatory notes in order to better understand the context of the composition of the works on the program, the text of which, in Latin, French or Italian, had fortunately been reproduced. That didn’t stop audiences from enjoying – religiously – the 90 minutes of music, which also included four short motets by Toronto’s Stephanie Martin in honor of Healey Willan, father of English-Canadian classical music.
No way to do otherwise with the ideal acoustics of the magnificent church designed 30 years ago by Montrealer Dan Hanganu. Even seated close to the singers as we were, the voices blended perfectly together, without taking away the independence of each of the sections (the pieces were for four or five voices, except O mors inevitabilis by Vinders, for seven voices).
Former member of the legendary Tallis Scholars, which we praised when they came to Bourgie Hall last fall, the Briton Andrew McAnerney took over the direction of the Montreal ensemble founded by Christopher Jackson in 1974 eight years ago. He confirmed on Saturday that he is a real voice sculptor.
The sopranos are just present enough, and the pitch never fails (ah! those final chords!). Our only – tiny – reservations concern the sopranos, whose sound could sometimes have a bit of extra roundness, and the basses, which tend to somewhat cover certain highs.
The “instrument” thus fashioned by McAnerney is also capable of the greatest contrasts in nuance, like that lunar pianissimo in Appenzeller’s Musae Jovis or those strong-soft alternations in Rore’s Creed from Missa Doulce memoir. The rhythmic contrasts were also there, as we could hear with the quick Death, you were sorry for your dart of Ockeghem, followed by Nymphes des bois by Josquin des Prés, magnificently posed.
The ensemble ended this fascinating afternoon with Toronto’s Ruth Watson Henderson’s In memoriam in homage to choir director Elmer Iseler, a delicate piece sung to vowels.