Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 5 February 2008

André Moisan: Sound Sculptor

by Marc Chénard / February 12, 2008

Version française...

Whether you hear him on stage or on a recording, total confidence radiates from André Moisan. One of the finest virtuosos, his innate musicality is appreciated by informed music lovers and hardened critics alike. Equipped with a complete arsenal of clarinets, from the enormous metal contrabass to the quasi-wooden stick that is the sopranino in Eb, he plays them all with panache and ease, alongside the clarinet's cousins, the saxophones. Whether he's performing Brahms our Boulez, Saint-Saëns or Stockhausen, no part of the classical contemporary repertoire seems out of his reach.

Last September, the charismatic musician began the 30th year of his professional career. Since his arrival on the scene at age 17, his journey has been filled with diverse experiences: countless concerts as a musician in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (MSO), solo and chamber recitals, studio music (soundtracks, advertising jingles, accompaniment for pop artists), and even some forays into jazz. Equally at home as a conductor, this one time student of Boulez has led the MSO Youth Matinées series for almost 10 years. What’s more, he passes on his vast knowledge to aspiring clarinetists enrolled at l’Université de Montréal (from Bachelor’s to doctoral students); highly in demand as a lecturer, he gives masterclasses as well as seminars on one of his favourite subjects: stress management. No matter what role he assumes, Maestro Moisan juggles his many occupations with enthusiasm, conviction, and brilliance!

From a very young age, Moisan was immersed in music; his father, Gilles, was the bass clarinetist in the MSO for 46 years (1952-1998). After the latter’s retirement, André, the eldest of his three sons, took over the chair by winning the audition in front of a panel that included the legendary (and often intimidating) Charles Dutoit himself. Sounds like nepotism, you say? Not at all! For one, the audition is conducted so that the candidates are screened; in other words, they play behind a curtain to protect anonymity. In addition, the fortunate winner insists that Lady Luck was smiling down on him, since his instrument maker had provided him beforehand with one of the first prototypes of a new bass clarinet model, now renowned as the Cadillac of its kind.

Feeling the Music

Now in his 48th year, Moisan has attained some of the highest peaks of his profession, but he doesn’t allow himself to become complacent in his musical choices. As much as his recordings for the Atma label (see the discography at the end of this article) underscore a real preference for tonal music of the last 200 years, he doesn’t shun contemporary repertoire. “I probably spent a good hundred hours working on “Domaines” by Boulez, to master them from a technical point of view, obviously, and to perform them with emotion. I even asked the composer if one should play them as such or in a more detached, if not neutral style, and he confirmed my intention.”

In another realm of the repertoire, he relates how he decided to change a few indications in the score, even a turn of phrase or two in Jean Françaix’s Tema con Variazioni (a work included on Moisan’s CD entitled Impressions de France). Just after recording the piece, Lady Luck smiled on him again when he learned, to his great surprise, that the composer was still alive. Through a third party, he managed to meet Françaix in Paris, hoping to have the composer hear his version. This meeting worked out so well for Moisan that the composer was deeply impressed and willingly accepted the performer’s changes.

“What’s important for me,” states Moisan, “is to feel a piece, as much its individual phrases as its collective whole, otherwise I adjust it, or I simply put it aside. For my recordings, it’s exactly the same. My label gives me complete freedom in choosing the repertoire, too. Almost every time, I aim to include a world premiere or a rarely performed piece, like the sonata by Jenner, a composer who has unfortunately been mostly forgotten, even though he was Brahms’ only student. Interestingly, many colleagues advised me not to do the piece, but finally thanked me for having done it, and I should thank my pianist, Jean Saulnier, who encouraged me in this regard, even though he has an extremely difficult part to play. Critics also appreciated my initiative; some even preferred the Jenner to the two Brahms sonatas that precede it on the disc.”

Occupational Hazards

Given his precocious nature, as well as the family’s connection to music, one could be led to believe that André Moisan followed a direct path to the international reputation and many successes he has attained; however, the road was not without some hairpin turns. “I started to play almost in hiding at grade school,” he admits, “and a man named Lucien Rivard first taught me the basics. My father took over, but I was a fairly stubborn student; I constantly questioned his assignments. As a teen I practiced fiendishly, sometimes until my lips bled. I set goals for myself during this period: one of them was to get my technique together by the age of 20, just so I could concentrate on really making music from then on. In 1977, my father started up the Quatuor de clarinettes Moisan with my two brothers and me, which was a fantastic family experience that lasted for 12 years for me. I emphasize the word ‘family’ here, because our mother acted as our impresario.”

As to his thoughts on the possible benefits of coming from a musical background, he concedes that this gives an individual the opportunity to develop earlier on, but that it is not an absolute advantage, a case in point being his own siblings, who decided not to make a career out of music. In addition, there is a general perception that great artists are destined for glory based only on sheer talent—there’s more to it than that: one must have motivation and determination, two assets that allowed André Moisan to reach his enviable status as a performing artist.

When still a teenager, he seemed primed for a quick rise to the top. In 1977, for instance, he made his début as a substitute with the MSO. Yet, his first real professional gig was more modest: playing a jingle for an ad. The ice was broken, though, as one engagement led to another, and his career began well enough. The first roadblocks, however, lay around the corner.

“Everything was going well for me up until then: I was having a good time, but it became less fun very quickly. I started with the Grands Ballets Canadiens orchestra when I was 17, and it was then that I began to feel stressed. Music is one thing, but then there’s the human factor as well, like dealing with people already established in the business. They see you as the new kid who can’t possibly be as good as them and that’s when all kinds of unpleasant thoughts run through your mind, like what they think of you. In the MSO, I saw how stern the conductor was towards his musicians and I was terrified of making a mistake. At one point, I wondered if I was getting hired because I was the son of Gilles Moisan. All these fears ate away at me until I stopped playing for a year in 1980. It’s most unhealthy to think poorly of yourself just because you haven’t done something perfectly. This isn’t to say that you should lower the bar; keep it high, but if it isn’t attained right away, you have to accept it as a stage in the process. Once upon a time, I didn’t have this capacity to see things relatively, to put them in perspective, but I finally caught on.”

Enjoy Yourself Above All

From this difficult period, André Moisan learned the valuable lesson that there are no purely bad experiences: they can certainly be very difficult, but there is always a silver lining to every cloud. He, for one, knows all too well: “To escape this despair, I pondered long and hard to truly understand this deep-seated motivation in me, which I completely lost but needed to find again. For a year, I withdrew from music to study these problems, but I missed playing so much that it came back to me at warp speed. I had to reexamine my priorities and decided to put pleasure at the top of my newfound scale of values; from that moment on, I resolved to never again allow anyone to compromise this enjoyment which is so valuable, not only in music, but in all aspects of life. I’m still researching these issues to this day, and this has allowed me to develop my seminar, which I call (translated from French): ‘Mental Strategies for Performing Artists in the 21st Century’”.

During his lecture, Moisan draws on subjects as diverse as neurophysiology, psychology, and philosophy, supported by a very broad-based audiovisual presentation and demonstrations with some “guinea-pig” students. To that end, musicians and fans alike are cordially invited to his next talk on March 1, from 1:30-4:30 PM, in the Salle Serge-Garant (room 484) at l’Université de Montréal’s Faculty of Music (220, chemin Vincent-D’Indy). For more information and reservations, call 514-343-6427.

Skilled performer, passionate conductor and born communicator all rolled into one, André Moisan is a remarkable artist who has found not only the key to his own success, but the knack to share this gift with his audience, from novices to experts alike! n [Traduction : Graham Lord]

En concert

› -Dimanche 24 Février, 14 h 30. En soliste avec l’OSM (Place des Arts, salle Wilfrid-Pelletier). Le sexe des anges, concerto pour clarinette basse et orchestre de Denys Bouliane.

› -Lundi 3 mars, 7 h 30 (N.B. le matin). Série « Sonnez les matines », Chapelle de l’Église Saint-Jean Baptiste, 4250, rue Drolet. Œuvres de Kovac, Stravinski, Béchet et autres surprises.

› -Vendredi 14: Conférencier invité (Journée de la clarinette Buffet-Crampon) et récital (samedi 15 à 19 h 30) avec le pianiste Jean Saulnier. (Conservatoire de Hull à Gatineau).

› -Mercredi 3 avril, 19 h 30. Soliste invité avec le Big Band de jazz de l’Université de Montréal, dir. Ron di Lauro. Faculté de musique, Université de Montréal, 220 ch. Vincent-D’Indy.

› -Jeudi 2 mai, 18 h 30, Musée des Beaux-Arts.
Exécution de l’Octuor de Schubert avec les solistes de l’OSM.

Sur disque

› -2007 -Phantasiestücke (Œuvres de Rheinberger, von Sachsen Meininghausen, Schumann et Reinecke) ACD2 2516*

› -2005 -Brahms Jenner / Sonates pour clarinette et piano. ACD2 2358*

› -2001 -Adolphe Blanc, Septuor op. 40, Trio op. 23, Quintette op. 37 (André Moisan, direction artistique et clarinette avec
l’ensemble Les Vents de Montréal) ACD2 2224

› -1999 -Alla Gitana (Œuvres de Bartok, Dukas, Martinu, Vaughan Williams et autres) ACD2 2187**

› -1997 -Beethoven Symphonie no 7 et Septuor op. 20 (André Moisan direction de l’ensemble Les Vents de Montréal) ACD2 2129**

› -1996 -Impressions de France (Œuvres de Poulenc, Saint-Saëns, Rabaud, Debussy, Widor, Pierné et Françaix) ACD2 2121**

* Jean Saulnier, piano ; ** Louise-Andrée Baril, piano

(Tous les titres sont sur Atma Classique)

Five Hints for Aspiring Clarinetists

1 › Have fun, always

2 › Do long tones

3 › Breath

4 › Breath

5 › Taking deep breaths before playing

The lungs are to wind players what bows are to string players. Whatever a musician plays, his articulation, legato, quality of sound or dynamics, nothing can happen without deep and full breaths. We are like sculptors, but our chisel is our breath, and the sound is our chosen material. But for artists, it’s not only a matter of drawing in air, but making music, too. If our breath is not an artistic one, an act of love made in total awareness, it simply will never fly!” (Sound advice, indeed.)

Version française...

(c) La Scena Musicale