Nelson’s Gilles Parenteau put one of Canada’s grandest pipe organs to the test when brought his virtual symphony to the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City.
In the works for almost a year, the Selkirk College Contemporary Music & Technology Program instructor was invited to weave together the past and present during a November performance at the famed concert hall. Using the massive Casavant Freres organ—that is comprised of three keyboards, 37 stops, 51 registers and 2,846 pipes—Parenteau played a repertoire that spanned Bach to Led Zeppelin and plenty in between.
Gilles Parenteau at the keyboard of the Casavant Freres organ at the Palais Montcalm in Quebec City where the Selkirk College Music & Technology Program instructor performed his virtual symphony before a delighted audience in November, 2014. (photo courtesy Michael Parenteau)
“It was the biggest sound I ever heard in my life… it was amazing,” says Parenteau.
Parenteau has been combining his classical pipe organ upbringing with a contemporary/jazz musical background for more than two decades to create his virtual symphony. Using the technical standard of MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) that allows a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers and other related devices to communicate with one another, Parenteau is considered one of the nation’s keyboard innovators.
In the spring of 2014, Parenteau was asked by the Palais Montcalm to take its new pipe organ to a new frontier. Installed in 2013, Parenteau was charged with the task of seeing what borders could be pushed with the $1.5 million instrument.
“It got complicated, but I did it,” says the 53-year-old who has been teaching at Selkirk College since 1990. “That was the first time there was a live concert with a real pipe organ and extensive MIDI setup playing together without any pre-recordings. It was well received and it was an experience of a lifetime for me.”
Respecting History and Creating New Opportunities
Parenteau grew up in Drummondville, Quebec and started playing organ when he was 10. He was immediately hooked and so began a life’s journey with keyboards.
“In the 70s, the organ was hip,” says Parenteau.
After high school, Parenteau continued with his musical education when he spent four years at Cegep de Drummondville studying the pipe organ.
Parenteau performed his Virtual Symphony using the massive Casavant pipe organ at Quebec City's Palais Montcalm.
Casavant Freres pipe organs are manufactured 20 minutes down the highway from where Parenteau grew up. The company is based in Saint-Hyacinthe and has been making the world famous organs since 1879. With instruments in locations such as the Notre Dame de Montreal Basilica, the John F. Kennedy Center Concert Hall in Washington DC and hundreds of other churches and performance halls, Casavant is the gold standard.
Parenteau’s November concert at Palais Montcalm was the first time a keyboard player used MIDI to that extent. Sound engineers from Casavant were keen to hear the results.
“Respecting tradition is very important,” Parenteau says. “I can understand why companies and purists resisted this long. Looking what has happened in the last 30 years, it was probably the right decision. But now the digital sounds are so good, it’s what Bach and people like him were dreaming about. Why stop in the 19th Century technology?”
The Sounds of Success
Returning to his home province to play such an epic instrument was one of the highlights of Parenteau’s well decorated career. His mother bought tickets for the entire second row, his wife and two sons were in the audience, and many other long-time supporters came to hear the virtual symphony.
“That was a trip and a half,” says Parenteau. “We were all blown away.”
Also in the audience was 83-year-old Gilles Fortin, the director of the music program at Cegep de Drummondville when Parenteau attended the school. Parenteau gets tears his eyes when he describes their post-show meeting.
“I told him before the concert: ‘Mr. Fortin, there are things that you are not going to like in this repertoire.’ He still wanted to come,” says Parenteau. “After the concert he approved and it was such an honour.”
From Quebec City to the Tenth Street Campus
Building on what he learned in Quebec City and with a bolstered repertoire, Parenteau will be bringing his Virtual Symphony to the Shambhala Music & Performance Hall in a Selkirk Pro-Musica sponsored concert on February 2. It won’t be the same as playing on a 30 foot high pipe organ, but Parenteau has designed a new layout of keyboards that is sure to delight.
“You can’t haul around a real pipe organ, but it sounds fantastic,” he says. “My instrument is unique. This will be the first time I am using this particular rig to perform my virtual symphony.”
Parenteau during his 2011 Virtual Symphony tour. The Selkirk College instructor has put together a new rig and repertoire that will be performed at the Shambhala Music & Performance Hall in Nelson on February 2.
Though the popularity of the organ has waned since he first sat down in front of the keys in the 1970s, Parenteau’s enthusiasm for the organ has not subsided. He hopes that the Quebec City performance and his current virtual symphony creation helps boost the popularity of his cherished instrument.
“I would like to see a new chapter opened in the history of the organ,” he says. “To me, the concept of the organ is an orchestral instrument that is played with two hands and two feet and it’s live. That is what I want to see survive, more so than how it’s built or what it does.”
Tickets for the February 2 show are $15 and available at Otter Books in Nelson.