Brel alive and well
A spectacular OSM homage to the great Belgian chansonnier
By Byron Toben
Back in 1968, while visiting New York, I saw the long running off-Broadway hit, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris by Mort Schumann and Eric Blau. I became an immediate aficionado of the great father of modern French chanson.
Even though, a film version of it was made in Montreal in 1975, Brel attending, that never proved popular – even the DVD of that, finally released in the US in 2005, did not do well.
So I was delighted when actor/singer/director Nadia Verrucci, who had not known Brel’s work before, produced an intimate but powerful version at the Mainline theatre, which I reviewed for the then active Rover Arts on March 13, 2013.
Aside from a 2014 concert by French singing legend Juliette Greco (who had been an early champion of Brel back in Paris) at the Place des Arts (also reviewed by me), in which she included a number of the Belgian singer/songwriter’s pieces, there seemed to be a dearth of Brel events.
So I was delighted to see that the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (OSM) was doing a three-day Brel symphonique. It was also part of their ‘Pop’ concert series and a chance to check out its wonderful concert hall.
Although Brel had made his mark in intimate boites with a single guitar or piano, he translated well to being backed by a huge 107-piece tuxedoed and gowned ensemble…
What a spectacular event! Although Brel had made his mark in intimate boites with a single guitar or piano, he translated well to being backed by a huge 107-piece tuxedoed and gowned ensemble, whose luxuriant notes, directed by Simon Leclerc’s waving baton, fitted the ten vocal artists – five women and five men, each warbling two Brel songs wonderfully well.
They were all apparently well known to the sold out audience, so for me, it was also a quick introduction course to hearing these stars of the chanson scene. Leading off, after the rich overture, was petite brunette Brazil-born Bia, dressed in red, who included Brel standard Amsterdam.
Third to go was tall, blondish Catherine Major, garbed in green, who included Brel classic Ne me quittes pas, which was in fact the sub-title of the evening’s homage.
Fifth in line was black-attired (all the men wore black) Luc De Larochellière who included the ever-popular Mathlide.
These were the three songs I was most familiar with. How wonderful to hear seventeen more, new to me.
‘As authentic as all the male singers were, I was amazed at how effortlessly the female artists slipped into the Brel mould…’
Particularly applauded by the audience was Danielle Oddera, who had been a personal friend of Brel and who had sung with him on his visit to Montreal in 1965. In addition to interpreting a spirited La valse a mille temps, she read a touching letter related to his death in 1978.
Pierre Flynn, equally keen on Charles Aznavour, chose to contribute Brel’s Le plat pays.
Bruno Pelletier impressed with La chanson des vieux amants as did Paul Piche with Juares. Tenor Marc Hervieux, who will appear at Theatre Lac Brome in June, introduced a shade more comedy with Les bonbons.
As authentic as all the male singers were, I was amazed at how effortlessly the female artists slipped into the Brel mould, including the final two, Diane Tell with Voir un ami pleurer and Marie-Elaine Thibert belting out Remparts de Varsovie.
All ten thrilling singers joined together in a group for Les coeurs tendres in a rousing finish.
I pray to Ste. Cecilia that the Pops concert can repeat or issue a recording of this show in the future.
Brel symphonique ended on April 20.
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Images: Antoine Saito
Byron Toben is the immediate past-president of the Montreal Press Club