Pipe dreams do come true

At only 35, McGill music grad Jean-Willy Kunz gets to play one of the most interesting musical instruments in Montreal – the massive Casavant Frères pipe organ that juts out from the front wall of Maison Symphonique, where Kunz is organist-in-residence with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.
Jean-Willy Kunz is the first Organist in Residence with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. / Photo: Doug Sweet
Jean-Willy Kunz is the first Organist in Residence with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. / Photo: Doug Sweet

Jean-Willy Kunz enjoys role as Organist in Residence at Maison Symphonique

By Doug Sweet

If, as Mark Twain said here in 1881, you can’t throw a brick in Montreal without breaking a church window, it must be equally true that you can’t go very far in this once very religious city without stumbling across a pipe organ. And often a damned good one.

Which is what brought Jean-Willy Kunz to Montreal in 2004 at the fairly tender age of 24 – where, in 2006, he began his doctorate in organ performance under Professor (now Emeritus) John Grew at McGill. And where, three years ago, he was named the first Organist in Residence with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal.

Except for two-year break during his late teens, when he pulled away from classical music to study jazz piano, Kunz has been a devotee of the pipe organ since he first played one at age 9, learning at the local Conservatoire he’d been sent to the year before in his native Grenoble, France. He’d actually begun to learn piano at home from his mother at age 4. By 12, he was studying organ at the Conservatoire in Lyon, where he won a gold medal at age 18, and piano at the Grenoble conservatory.

And then came a setback.

A bid to study at the famed Conservatoire de Paris proved unsuccessful. Kunz then began to look around for a different venue to pursue his studies. And that’s where all those wonderful pipe organs in Montreal come in.

The number and variety of pipe organs in Montreal, and, more important, the fact they were accessible to a young student, was one part of a large musical magnet. The other was the chance to study organ at the Conservatoire de Montréal under famed organist and harpsichordist Mireille Lagacé. Kunz had sent a demo tape on ahead and he was accepted.

“I was one of her last students,” he says a bit wistfully. “I wanted to come back to the organ because I wanted to experience what I had been missing when I was young in the organ world, to experience the organ through my own eyes.” And, presumably, his ears.

“I didn’t know how long I would stay. It was easier for a young organist to practice on big church organs here than in France. I knew that in Montreal it was easier… And the number of really good instruments, and the variety of organs available….”

Because not all pipe organs are the same.

While there are essentially, from a mechanical perspective, two types of pipe organs (tracker organs where there is a direct, mechanical connection between the keys and the pipes, and electro-pneumatic organs where that connection is electrical), organs can also represent different “nationalities,” or produce sounds that represent French, German or Italian music. They have different “voices.”

The Casavant Frères monster that inhabits Maison Symphonique is actually a hybrid – it has a tracker console in the organ loft high above the stage, and an electro-pneumatic console on the stage, where the organist can be closer to the orchestra and conductor.

St-Hyacinthe-based Casavant is Canada’s premier organ builder, having supplied organs to churches throughout the country from the late 1800s until the mid 20th Century, and now developing a worldwide market with particular attention to Southeast Asia. These days, Casavant organs, like the one in Maison symphonique, boast such modern technology as Wi-Fi and iPad connections, so organists can pre-program the various presets on the different manuals, or keyboards, that control the dozens of stops that make different organ sounds. The beast in Maison symphonique boasts 83 different stops.

McGill’s exquisite pipe organ in Redpath Hall, built in 1981 by Helmuth Wolff, is an example of an instrument in the French classical style. There are also three Beckerath “tracker” organs in Montreal that are designed more for the German baroque repertoire and a host of Casavant Frères instruments installed over generations that have more of a French flair. At least one Italian-style organ exists in a church in the Hochelaga district of Montreal.

The largest organ in Montreal is the Casavant instrument in Notre Dame Basilica, with about 7,000 pipes, Kunz says. By contrast, the Maison symphonique organ has 6,489 pipes, spread out over four floors behind the main façade of the concert hall. There is a wide variety of pipes, from vertical and horizontal wooden boxes, to tapered metal pipes, to flared pipes that project horizontally into the concert hall itself. Some of those, called chamade pipes, can actually be trundled forward and backward on a track.

“This is very, very rare,” Kunz says, adding that it took four months of rehearsals with the orchestra before the organist and the band were comfortable with one another.

Kunz’s time at McGill was “one of the best times in my life,” he says. “Never again in my life will I take six months to just read. It was a different time. I was teaching a bit and immersing myself in theory.”

He doesn’t really have a favourite organ in Montreal, or a favourite repertoire. He likes different organs for different reasons, and the same with the repertoire. Bach is, of course, a staple. “I’ve never met anyone who disliked Bach,” Kunz says. “But I love doing lots of non-classical concerts.”

A little while ago, he played with a jazz quintet for the friends of the OSM, and he has also played the organ with Martha Wainwright and Rufus Wainwright, not to mention DJ Kid Koala, and at the opening night of a recent Montreal Fashion Week, where his organ music was broadcast to an outdoor event.

“You can show the public what the organ can be,” he says. “I try to differentiate the church from the organ. Quebecers have a kind of resistance to organ music because of its traditional links to the church.”

Would he like to play the organ at a Montreal Canadiens game at the Bell Centre? Someone else beat him to it, he said. “Vincent Boucher, the organist at St. Joseph’s Oratory, played at a Habs game instead of the usual performer, Diane Bibeau.

But, he says with a smile, “we actually did a little video to encourage the Canadiens last spring” in their playoff run.

Probably time to trundle that out again. It is, after all, the most powerful instrument in all of music.

Click on the thumbnail below to watch, and listen to, Jean-Willy Kunz in action.