NACO: Pianist Alain Lefèvre is making a powerful case for Canadian composers

Alain Lefèvre

Walter Boudreau has received a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for his life’s work as a composer, conductor, musician and as the artistic director of the Société de musique contemporaine du Québec in Montreal.

Did you recognize the name? If you didn’t, you probably not alone. Not that many people in Canada have heard of Boudreau. Even fewer will have heard his music played in concert. And that’s a disgrace, says Alain Lefèvre.

Lefèvre, himself a respected composer, teacher and pianist, has made a career out of playing and bringing the music of Canadian, especially Quebec, composers into the spotlight. It’s his passion.

“I arrived in Montreal when I was five years old, he said. “I was born in France. I did all my music studies in Montreal. One of my surprises was to realize how proud other nations are of their great composers. The French are proud to play French music. American conductors and orchestras are proud to play American music. The Germans are the same.

“I just came back from Poland, when you play Chopin for them, they have a sense of pride in a composer who has done something for them.

“What is amazing for me is how very little you will see a great Canadian artist going abroad and playing the music of Canadian composers. It’s something that really strikes me.

“I honestly believe that you can record Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony a certain number of times. But, you know, we do not need any more of those.”

When Lefèvre talks about music with students they often express a desire to record a Beethoven sonata.

“I don’t have the heart to tell them that nobody cares.”

For his part Lefèvre performs Canadian music around the world and he records it.

“I know it’s not necessarily trendy to talk about that but I don’t care. I’m proud that I’m the son of an immigrant and I am proud of my country. I will always fight for my country. This is maybe stupid but this is my thing.”

To prove the point, next week he’ll play Walter Boudreau’s Concerto de l’asile with the NAC Orchestra conducted by Alexander Shelley. And while it’s being performed, it will be recorded for release as a CD on the Analekta label sometime in the near future.

Lefèvre is perhaps best known for his work with the music of the mid-20th century Quebec composer André Mathieu.

One of his recordings of Mathieu’s music has sold, he says, about 45,000 copies, proving it is possible to get an audience for Canadian music, he adds.

His connection to Boudreau’s concerto goes back several years.

“I was going to a theatre piece and … I heard this music, this waltz by, I didn’t know who (at the time). I got goosebumps.”

He became determined to meet the composer, Walter Boudreau.

“So I met him and I said to him I would like to play your waltz.” And so Lefèvre did, but he thought there was more to be done.

“I said to Walter, ‘This is more than a waltz. You should write a piano concerto around this piece’.”

When Boudreau agreed, the two began a process that lasted almost three years. The result, in Lefèvre’s opinion, is a masterpiece.

“It is a revolution in music in Canada. I am sure that this piece will become a classic instantly when people will be able to listen to the recording of this.”

He says he brought his idea of recording the Boudreau to NACO and urged them to “jump on this concerto.”

And they did and for that, Lefèvre is full of praise for the folks at the NAC.

“I believe that Alexander Shelley is from a new generation and is more willing to do new work. And I believe, and I’m not trying to be nice, that NACO has the kind of courage (about new Canadian music) that I rarely see elsewhere in Canada.”

Part of the reason that Lefèvre is so passionate about new Canadian music is his belief that if new music isn’t played, the art form doesn’t progress.

“This is the most powerful argument that you can say. If we do not have music of our times, what kind of society are we?

He’s also, he says, concerned about the classical music business.

“I am not convinced we are not on the right path. I don’t believe in (such things as) those crossover concerts (performing the music of pop bands) that we see performed all over the place to attract the younger generation. I feel that we have to be sincere. We have to be honest and we have to be innovative.”

He says there is a prevailing societal view of classical music that posits it as boring and hard to listen to. He blames a culture that considers classical music weird and believes rock and roll equals freedom.”

So, he says, it’s time to change this prevailing view and one way to do that is by playing new music.

“Why can’t we as a society have a duty to protect the people who create new music. In Canada, we have wonderful artists who never get a pat on the back.”

Well, Boudreau is about to get a pat on the back next week.

Lefèvre and Boudreau are busy polishing and tweaking to score of the concerto that will be presented to Shelley on Sunday night.

On Monday, the members of NACO will see the finished version.

“I believe the orchestra is going to be in a state of shock. They are in for a ride,” he says, adding, wth a belly laugh, that the piece will be “50 minutes of pure hell” for players.

Alain Lefèvre with the National Arts Centre Orchestra
Conducted by Alexander Shelley
Where: Southam Hall
When: Feb. 20 & 21 at 8 p.m.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.