Basilique Notre-Dame : Celebrating 50 Years of Pierre Grandmaison’s Career

by Rédaction PAN M 360

The organ is undoubtedly in the spotlight during the 2023-2024 Montreal music season. Through all the fantastic concerts featuring the imposing instrument at the Maison symphonique, it would be easy to forget that the Pierre-Béique organ has an older brother who also resides in a place of contemplation – in the more common sense of the word, all the same.

On Sunday evening, the Basilique Notre-Dame du Vieux-Port celebrated the 50th anniversary of its organist, Pierre Grandmaison. At the console since 1973, this is an impressive milestone for an organist who has clearly not lost his touch and showmanship after all these years. With virtuosity, clarity and humour, he filled the Basilica with the magical sound of the organ he has come to know so well.

A word about the organ at Montréal’s Basilique Notre-Dame. It is indeed the big brother of the Maison symphonique organ, also produced by Casavant Frères, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Inaugurated in 1891, it has been resonating for over a hundred years. It also has 7,000 pipes, some 500 more than the Pierre-Béique organ. Admittedly, it has been upgraded fairly recently at Maison Casavant Frères (some of the same technologies found on the Pierre-Béique Organ are also present), but it remains a marvel of organology, especially for its age.

The program appeared to be a best-of of works frequently played at the Basilica. We were treated to the classics, with Bach and César Franck, whose exploration of timbres and stops was fantastic, as well as several works linked to the Virgin Mary, notably Verdi’s Ave Maria (performed with soprano Caroline Bleau), from his last opera Otello (dating, incidentally, fairly close to the Basilica organ’s conception, i.e. 1887). The presence of three pieces by Louis Vierne reinforces the influence of the French tradition on the Montréal organ tradition. We also note the importance of form in the works on the program, with the presence of refrains and encores, but above all of the choral form, which lent itself well to the context.

The atmosphere in the Basilica was quite jovial. The inevitable echo from the Basilica affected the sound somewhat but remained appropriate. Pierre Grandmaison spoke effectively to an audience with a wide range of backgrounds. Warmly applauded after each piece, he rewarded the audience with clear playing that accentuated the themes, making the works accessible to all. He also indulged in a few whimsical touches, notably with the final piece, the Westminster Carillon, which is actually a harmonization of the Big Ben motif we’re all familiar with, and also with an amusing encore, Mozart’s variations on the theme of “Ah, vous dirai-je, maman”.

The audience, seated as in the early church concerts – facing the altar and with their backs to the rear, where the organ was placed – were entertained and mused with Pierre Grandmaison. A fitting tribute to a fine career that continues, after so many years already.

You can hear the Basilica organ and Pierre Grandmaison in the context of the “Take a seat at the organ” activity offered at several times during the Year. For details and tickets, click HERE.

Photo by Alexis Ruel

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