The Montreal Lyric Orchestra: the new kid on the classical music block

The Montréal Symphony Orchestra is great, and so is the Orchestre Métropolitain, but that doesn’t mean that a young startup orchestra — the Lyric Orchestra of Montreal/Orchestre lyrique de Montréal — can’t get in on the classical action in our music-obsessed city. The brainchild of Ben Kepes and Simon Rivard, the OLM opens its doors to the public for the first time this Thursday. Don’t miss out — you’ll want to be able to say you knew them when they were the new kid on the block. I spoke to Ben Kepes about the orchestra’s mission and future.

Nancy Berman (NB): Why does Montreal need another orchestra?

Ben Kepes (BK): We’re filling a niche that most orchestras don’t really explore, which has to do with lyric repertoire: non-operatic works for voice and orchestra. We also want to give opportunities to local Canadian performers and singers and eventually to commission and promote new Canadian lyric works for voice and orchestra. So I don’t think there’s another orchestra like this in Montreal. We’re taking these young graduates, new professionals so to speak, and we’re giving them a professional gig. There are many student or semi-professional orchestras that are completely volunteer (i.e. the musicians aren’t paid), and we want to give new professional Canadian musicians a real, professional performance opportunity.


Ben Kepes, co-founder and co-conductor of the OLM

Ben Kepes, co-founder and co-conductor of the OLM

NB: So the musicians are university students?

BK: Most of them have graduated, and some are in their last year at university. We’ve pulled people from all over the place, but mostly the Montreal and Sherbrooke areas.


NB: What do you envision for the future of the orchestra?

BK: Part of our mission has to do with education. We want to be able to go to schools and give workshops and showcase the orchestra and the repertoire, expose the kids to the music, educate them a bit, educate the audience. It’s a problem that most audiences aren’t educated to appreciate classical music. When we started the project we already had a three-year plan. So it was understood from the get-go that this wouldn’t be a one-concert deal. We had a long-term idea of where the project would go.


NB: Where do you hope to be at the end of three years?

BK: At the end of the first year we want to be able to give the musicians union rates. We want everything to be professional, by the book, we want to create an audience and an appreciation for this niche, and in three years it would be great if the orchestra members become regular, and we can hold auditions for spots in the orchestra.


NB: You’ve said that you want to perform these works the way they were performed in the early part of the 20th century, in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Why? Why not perform them in the style they were performed when they were composed?

BK: I wrote an article that will soon be put on our website where I criticize performance practice in general. Basically, if you listen to material from the first part of the 20th century, there is no standard for style. I like to take the point of view that the musical substance determines how the music is played, not the local socio-political circumstances of when and where it was written. Suffice to say that in my opinion performance practice is a formula, a set of rules you apply — to play Mozart you do this, and this and this. I want to be in a situation where spontaneity is a condition of performance. I think that permits a richer approach to the music, rather than following performance practice rules. Each piece determines its own style.


NB: Tell me about your co-founder and co-conductor, Simon Rivard.

BK: Simon is fantastic, so talented, and he’s going to do a great job with Mahler’s Fourth Symphony on Thursday. Simon and I are completely different people, different kinds of musicians, and we complement each other very well. He’s very much into the poetry of the lyric repertoire. I’m very much interested in a more rigorous symphonic way of thinking. He’s open-minded and flexible, and a pleasure to work with.


The Orchestre lyrique de Montréal performs Thursday October 23 at 7:30 at Oscar Peterson Hall (7141 Sherbrooke West). Tickets $35 in advance, $40 each at the door, two for $50, and 4 for $100.