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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 3

Louise Forand-Samson and her Club Musical

by Wah Keung Chan / November 1, 2001

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The trip from Quebec City to Montreal is two and a half hours, but for Montrealers the distance to Quebec City feelslike 5 hours.” This is a remark that Louise Forand-Samson is fond of repeating. Now in her 30th year as artistic director of the Club Musical de Québec, the 110-year-old non-profit volunteer-based organization, Forand-Samson runs a yearly six-concert series that is the envy of artistic directors everywhere. The club boasts 1600 subscribers and the list of visiting artists reads like a who’s who of the music world: This year it includes Ben Heppner, Arcadi Volodos and Radu Lupu. In the past, Fleming, Terfel, David Daniels, Argerich (5 times) and Rostropovich were guests.


What lies behind Forand-Samson’s ability to book today’s leading musicians, many of whom have never performed in Montreal? The secret may be a core of long-time volunteers. Until last year, the Club Musical never paid any staff. “The subscribers of the Club have a sense of belonging; it’s almost a cult,” says with a laugh the exuberant Forand-Samson, who is undoubtedly the heart of the organization. Thanks to her keen sense of talent, adept knack for dealing with managers (who never take her for a fool), and a friendly approach to musicians, Quebec City has become one of the top stops on tour schedules. When Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel made his recital tour a few years ago, the Club Musical was offered the third stop behind New York and Chicago.

What helps to keep musicians returning to the Club Musical is Forand-Samson’s ability to make the artists feel at home. “A happy artist will always give a better performance. I try my darnedest to provide artists with the best possible performing conditions. The piano has to be warm, and the stage comfortable. In the dressing room, there are clean towels, a fresh bar of soap, a wrapped glass, a gift, a basket of fruit, water and a history of the Club Musical. I want them to walk in and say, ‘Wow, I was expected.’ We meet them at the airport and take them to the hotel. I’ll invite them for lunch. If they want company, I’m there to make them feel wanted and appreciated. Musicians are generally lonely people because others don’t treat them like human beings. The fact that I’m a trained musician, toured for 12 years, heard a lot of music, attended many recitals, and speak the musical language helps.”

A native Montrealer, Forand-Samson hails from a musical family--her mother was first harp at the New York Philharmonic and the Montreal Symphony before she was born, and her father “had a glorious voice” around the house. Since age 3 she wanted to be in music and the piano was her instrument. She studied with Yvonne Hubert at Vincent d’Indy, Vlado Perlmuter in Paris, and Nadia Reisenberg in New York. When she returned to Montreal, she took an apartment on Girouard, informally known as The Girouard Inn because of her open-door policy. Every Friday and throughout the weekend, local and visiting musicians, including Alicia de Larrocha, who befriended Forand-Samson in New York, Garrick Ohlsson, Irving Heller, André-Sébastien Savoie, Otto and Walter Joachim, Gaston Germain and Gabrielle Lavigne, congregated around her German Steinway. After she married Quebec City music critic Marc Samson, she began to teach at the Quebec Conservatory of Music. Soon, she joined the Club Musical de Québec, graduating from putting up posters and selling tickets to negotiating contracts (being bilingual helped) to artistic director in one year.

“At the time, in 1972, they were almost ready to close down, with subscriptions down to 109,” said Forand-Samson. She took it out of Salle Louis Frechette, the big hall at the Grand Théâtre de Québec and gradually built up the subscription base by presenting top quality performers. “If a star does not move me, I am not interested. I also go after special and gifted kids,” said Forand-Samson as she rolled off names like Midori, Sarah Chang, Yo-Yo Ma at 17, the young Jessye Norman, Cecilia Bartoli (only paid $2,000), Volodos, Vengorov and Kissin. “I’ve been in the hound-dog business for 30 years now, and I’ve got people whose musical judgement I can trust.” Balancing a budget is never easy. “I negotiate like hell. The agents know exactly how much I can afford. There are fees that are negotiable and some that are not. I can afford one large fee in the year, and I balance this with the other concerts in the series. I never bargain on Canadian artists.” The formula of having subscriptions where ticket prices are the same throughout the series (about $35 per concert) has worked wonders. In 1984, they returned to Salle Louis Frechette, and she now claims that 96% of the seats are sold to subscribers. “I would never be able to do the same thing in Montreal,” said Forand-Samson. “It would cost me more to produce Volodos in Montreal than my whole season here.”

Forand-Samson has developed numerous friendships over the years with her artists--her house, piano and kitchen are always available instead of the hotel--but she has never used friendship in bargaining. “I would always go through the manager.” She did ask Krystian Zimerman to go to Hamburg to pick out the Grand Théâtre’s current Steinway. Piano Six made their debut in Quebec City at the concert that raised $37,000 towards the piano.

Two years ago, Forand-Samson had intestinal-bypass surgery. “Obesity is a genetic disease which creates health and social problems,” she said frankly. The innovative procedure developed at Laval University saved her life, and Forand-Samson created a hospital support group and a foundation. Being a friend of the stars will help this cause. On November 10, 2002, Maxim Vengerov will play at a concert in support of the foundation. “Max is a very generous soul, and when he found out about my foundation, he had his manager call me,” said Forand-Samson.

A year ago, Forand-Samson concluded her ten years as co-artistic director of the Lanaudière International Music Festival (“a great learning experience”) and she immediately took on the role of consultant of tours and international development for Les Violons du Roy. Last year’s David Daniels tour was the first, and the Quebec City concert became possible because she formed a collaboration between Les Violons du Roy, the Club Musical and the Grand Théâtre, each taking a different responsibility. “It’s a new experience for me. In the past I worked with managers, now I am working with presenters.” More projects are on the way.

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