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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 16, No. 7

Kenneth Gilbert - Baroque: A Lifelong Love

by Crystal Chan / April 1, 2011

Flash version here

Kenneth Gilbert’s career mirrors one of the most important developments in 20th century music: the early music revival. He played his first professional concerts just when the movement was being born, became one its important figures, and taught a generation of early music keyboardists. This Officer of the Order of Canada, Royal Society of Canada Fellow, and Officier de l'Ordre des arts et lettres de France championed Baroque music all his life as a performer, recording artist, teacher, and musicologist.

When he was growing up, however, ‘early music’ didn’t exist as a concept. “You might know about Bach,” he jokes. “And if you were daring, you might know a little about Buxtehude or Couperin. But for most people, there was a big gap between Bach and the 19th century.”

Born in Montreal in 1931, Gilbert grew up in St-Hyacinthe, where his family settled when he was four. Seeing as the latter is the nation’s unofficial ‘organ capitol,’ it’s not surprising that he started taking lessons on the instrument. In 1953, he graduated from the Montreal Conservatory. That same year, he won the Prix d’Europe at the age of 21. “That was an enormous stroke of luck,” Gilbert says. “I recently met one of the judges—now well into his nineties. He spoke of the impression I made when I sat down and played my whole programme by memory, which is not usually done on the organ. I took risks. They took a chance on me.” Today, he is an honourary member of the prize’s 100th anniversary committee.

After studying in Paris for two years, Gilbert returned to Montreal and, with friends and fellow organists Bernard and Mireille Lagacé, Gaston Arel, and Raymond Daveluy, founded the Ars Organi society, which organized concerts and fought for organ building projects. In 1959, Gilbert designed and saw the installation of the first modern tracker-action organ in Canada at the Queen Mary Road United Church, where he was organist and musical director. This Baroque-style instrument changed the face of organ design in the whole country. Only four years after he graduated, Gilbert was back as a teacher at the Montreal Conservatory. He also taught at the University of Ottawa, Laval University, and McGill University, where he started the early music program in 1960.

Meanwhile, early music was hooking classical music lovers across Europe and in American cities such as New York and Boston. It was a ‘new’ discipline, with new stars. There seemed to be more Canadian musicians in Europe than in Canada. “That’s just how it was,” he says. “You studied and worked in Europe.” So, at forty, Gilbert set out to “either make it in Europe or at least try.” He was successful, winning teaching posts at Antwerp’s Royal Flemish Conservatory, Stuttgart’s Hochschule für Musik, Salzburg’s Mozarteum, and the Paris Conservatory. He gave master classes and recitals all over Europe and North America, from Versailles to the Peabody Mason Concert series. Gilbert was one of the new stars.

What separates a musician from a fan is that listening to scores brought to life is not enough; there’s always the need to see the music yourself, to try the music under your own fingers. Gilbert’s relentless interest in early music was unmatched by how many pieces had been published. So he took the matter into his own hands. A musicologist of the finest order as well as a performer, Gilbert introduced forgotten scores and improved re-editions to the public, including the major keyboard works of Couperin, Scarlatti, d’Anglebert, Bach, Frescobaldi, and Rameau. He “translated” the lute tablatures of Kapsberger, which very few could read, never mind play, into keyboard scores. His specialty is French keyboard music. With Élizabeth Gallat-Morin, he put together the Montreal Organ Book, carefully transcribing a hand-written collection of 500 pieces for organ. It is the one of the few glimpses we have into the music of New France.

Another of his celebrations of New France was the rebuilding of Notre-Dame de Québec’s 1753 organ from France, which was destroyed in the siege of Quebec City. A faithful replica by the Montreal builders Juget-Sinclair was inaugurated in October 2009, after over twelve years of fighting for funding. The organ was painstakingly reconstructed from the original plans found in Paris archives. “Now organists come from all over to see this resurrected instrument,” says Gilbert. “Interest in old organs has grown immensely. People care about the instrument itself, not just what’s played on it. In this way, the organ is unlike the piano.

A tireless advocate for music in Quebec, he was awarded the Conseil Québécois de la musique’s Prix Opus Hommage in 2006. Gilbert has never left his home province in spirit, even though he now spends most of his time in Paris. Maybe he’ll move back someday soon, he says, and bring his priceless collection of instruments with him.

For now, he’s loaned two of them to McGill. They’ve been recorded on seminal discs, and one, a rare 17th century harpsichord in wonderful shape, is even thought to have been the personal instrument of Whistler, the famed painter.

Why not donate them to a museum? “They’re living objects,” says Gilbert. “I have a policy of wanting my instruments played by others. It's important that students are given a chance for contact with older instruments.” It’s one thing to read about short octaves and pure thirds, and another to play them.

“The instrument,” explains Gilbert, “is often the best teacher.”

» The Discovery CD, courtesy of XXI Records, is offered exclusively to paying subscribers. See the subscription form on page LSM15.

Reissued from ‘66 and ‘69

Discovery CD listeners have the pleasure of enjoying excerpts from two reissued LPs of Gilbert's: one recorded in 1966 at the Oratoire Saint-Joseph with him playing the organ, originally issued by the CBC in celebration of the Centenary of the Canadian Confederation, and one from a 1969 Orford session featuring him on harpsichord. One of the two tracks chosen from the former is the work of a Canadian and close colleague of Gilbert's, Raymond Daveluy, his Third Sonata. The other treat is the famous 16th century John Bull piece in 11/4 time "showing," in Gilbert's words, “a different and darker side of the magnicifent Oratoire instrument." Finishing off the Discovery CD are tracks reissued from a Jeunesses Musicale’s 20th anniversary series LP. Recorded at the then newly-finished concert hall at Orford, the tracks heard here are works by Chambonnières, Couperin, Dumont, and D'Anglebert.

(c) La Scena Musicale