Community action saves Montreal’s music chapel

Par P.A. Sévigny le 1 mai 2008

When Tremblay administration executives threatened to cut off all the funding as required by the downtown core’s Chapelle Bon Pasteur concert program, an outraged protest from every corner of Montreal’s music community forced the mayor’s office to back off. Once the protest began to work its way into the city’s media,  city officials were forced to restore the funding required to maintain one        of the city’s more successful and cherished cultural programs.

“After all the promises made during the Mayor’s two-day conference last November,” said artistic director Guy Soucie, “…we were shocked to hear how the city’s SDC (Service de Dévélopement Culturel) was planning to completely eliminate the chapel’s concert program.”

Soucie wasn’t the only one appalled by the city’s penny-wise and dollar-foolish culture executives. For once, everybody who knows about the Bon Pasteur’s diversified concert program agrees the city is getting more than good value for its money. With nothing more than a global budget of $250 thousand per year, Soucie provides the city’s music lovers with a free and almost daily choice of live classical concerts. For the past 30 years, the chapel’s fans have been lining up for evenings full of medieval madrigals, baroque chamber music, standard classical repertoire and at least one live jazz concert per month. Not only is the chapel’s concert venue considered to be one of the anchors of the city’s cultural community, it is also unique insofar as no other Canadian city has a venue quite like this one.

“It’s more than important,” said city musician Darcy Phillip Grey. “It has great acoustics and it’s just about the only place available for any touring musician to play in Montreal...”

In 1979, when the last of the Bon Pasteur’s nuns left their century-old Sherbrooke Street convent, the building was taken over by the city’s housing department and plans were made to convert the former convent into a new, multi-purpose and mixed-use housing complex. Not only was the Bon Pasteur project the first of its kind but it was also meant to be the model for the future conversion and renovation of similar religious properties. While architects always meant to turn the chapel into a concert venue, its natural light and its excellent acoustics were always considered one of the project’s singular strokes of good luck. When former Mayor Jean Doré decided to move into one of the building’s new condominiums, he arranged for the city to buy and pay for the chapel’s new Fazioli piano, one of the best in the world. Not only is the piano a singular instrument but its acoustics are such that the venue and its piano are often used to produce classical recordings. As many of the nuns who lived and worked in the convent are buried in the crypt directly below the chapel’s nave, Soucie often wonders if some of them aren’t  keeping an eye on their chapel.

“When good things happen,” he said, “…someone always shrugs and says the sisters made it happen.”

Soucie should know others besides the good sisters are looking out for his chapel. During an exclusive interview, Ville-Marie municipal councilor and Tremblay loyalist Catherine Sévigny said she was not only determined to maintain the chapel’s concert program but she was also working hard to get the money required to improve it. While she did say the program’s subsidy was being extended for only one more year, she also mentioned how the possibility of a  PPP (Public and Private Partnership) was being discussed with a number of corporate entities in order to bring in new money for the city’s cash-starved cultural infrastructure. While Sévigny admits Tremblay expects her to handle the responsibility for the chapel’s future, she said she understands Montreal’s music community and their concern about the future of “their” chapel.

“There is no question of doing anything that would wreck what is already an excellent program,” she said. “If nothing else, we’re going to do everything we can to improve it.”

With an election due next year, Soucie and others in Montreal’s music community can only wait to see what Sévigny has in mind for their chapel and its music.

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