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Pierre's Tuesday Blog

This Day in Music History - 21 September 1963

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This week, we go back 48 years, to the inaugural gala of Place des Arts in Montreal. Attended by many cultural and political luminaries, this event is particularly significant as the Montreal Symphony opened the doors of their new purpose-built symphony hall across the street two weeks ago.

Growing up in Montreal, I have only heard the MSO in the confines of Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, and at Notre-Dame basilica (where it held court during the Summer while Charles Dutoit was its Music Director). I also heard the MSO in many outdoor concerts throughout the city’s parks, and heard the orchestra’s many recordings from the sanctuary at the old Church of St-Eustache, where the MSO would move for its recording sessions.

Prior to this night 48 years ago, the MSO performed all of its concerts at Plateau Hall, an auditorium built by the Montreal Catholic School Commission in the 1930’s, adjacent to its Plateau school in the South-West quadrant of Lafontaine Park. Thus, for its first 1500 or so concerts, the MSO played in what was for all intents and purposes a High-School auditorium, seating barely 800 people (1300 when the balcony was open). This was adequate when Wilfrid Pelletier conducted the then “Société des Concerts Symphoniques de Montréal” orchestra in its humble beginnings in 1934, but had outlived its purpose by the late 1950’s when Igor Markevitch took over the steadily-improving ensemble.

This evening belonged really to three men, pictured below.

  • Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau (centre). The lawyer, activist, politician and visionary oversaw the blossoming of a World-Class metropolis. Place des Arts was one of his many large projects, along with the Montreal Metro, Expo 67 and the 1976 Olympic Games. In his first term as mayor, Drapeau felt the Montreal needed a worthy Fine Arts venue, to replace or complement a series of small theatres and auditoria. His vision was successfully peddled to the Quebec government, and after several years of lobbying, the project broke ground in 1961. “La Grande Salle”, as it was known then (rechristened to honour Pelletier in 1966), was the first building erected in the perimeter, with two more modest-sized theatres added in 1967, and more small venues and the Museum of Contemporary Art being added over the years to what has become “Festival central” in Montreal. Additionally, in 1964, Mr. Drapeau established the “Montreal Popular Concerts” series, in his own neighbourhood in Montreal’s East End which, to this day, provide “Boston Pops” style concerts during the Summer.
  • Famed conductor Wilfrid Pelletier (right). Pelletier was born in Montreal to a household of amateur musicians, and took piano at age seven. Growing up in Montreal’s East End, Pelletier started off a modest career as a pianist in local theatres, and after hearing a performance of Mignon by local musicians, came to the conclusion that he needed to leave his home town to get a proper music education and career, as Montreal and the province of Quebec had nothing to offer him. Winner of the $3500 Prix d’Europe, he went to Paris, and later New York where he was hired as a piano accompanist at the Metropolitan Opera, rising to the position of assistant conductor, and later resident conductor. In 1934, after having established his career firmly in New York, he was approached by local patrons to help form and lead a Symphony Orchestra in Montreal. He first turned down the opportunity, later relenting at his father’s insistence. He became the founding music director of the SCSM Orchestra, and led them until 1941. Pelletier’s lasting legacy with the orchestra are his “symphonic matinées” for young people, still part of the MSO’s subscription series to this day. He also helped establish the Montreal Conservatory of Music and Drama in 1943, which (by 1963) had managed to supply over half of the MSO’s musicians. On this gala evening, Maestro Pelletier was invited by the MSO to partake in the inaugural concert, where he conducted the World Premiere of Jean Papineau-Couture’s “Piece Concertante no. 5” as well as Canada’s “National Anthems” (O Canada and God Save the Queen, as the former was not adopted as the official anthem until 1980).
  • A young Zubin Mehta (left). The dashing, rising conductor was recruited by the MSO to take over from Igor Markevitch, and on this night is a few days away from starting the third year of subscription concerts as the orchestra’s Music Director. In addition to leading the orchestra in two major works at this gala event, the young maestro led the MSO in a successful tour of Europe and the USSR about 18 months earlier, and would oversee the start of the transformation of the MSO from a good Professional ensemble to that of a World-Class orchestra. Mehta, who at the time was also leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic, would leave the orchestra in 1967, in part to devote himself to the Los Angeles orchestra full-time, and also (as he put it in a backstage interview in 1986) because he “didn’t have the heart” to make all the changes needed for the MSO to reach the next level. His successors Franz-Paul Decker and Charles Dutoit would oversee these changes, and the orchestra rose to international stardom in the 1980’s.

As you will hear in interviews (in French), the audience was unanimous in lauding the Hall’s great acoustics. In spite of these initial first impressons, the acoustics at Wilfrid-Pelletier have been much maligned over the years. This is due, for the large part, to the “Festival” nature of the Hall, which is also designed for theatre, opera and ballet. The (then-) state-of-the-art stage, with orchestra pit, and the large venue itself (it seats almost 3000) suggest that many compromises had to be made to accommodate listeners and the stage itself. To add to this, the MSO is not the sole tenant of this venue, and does not have access to the stage for all its rehearsals, often having to do so in cramped adjacent rehearsal halls. In short, the MSO soon felt the hall was inadequate for its needs, and has been lobbying hard (in particular during the Dutoit years - 1978-2002) to be endowed with a purpose-built hall for symphonic concerts, with an organ, built out of noble materials, to provide a sound similar to that in some of the great venuies of Europe. It remains to be seen iof the New Hall will provide that unique sound experience - early reviews suggest that this will be the case, however.

To fully appreciate the nature of the gala evening, we will sample sound archives from Radio-Canada, which will provide the music (and commentary, interviews, etc.) from the first half of the concert. The gala itself was recorded by RCA Victor, and issued in a limited pressing of vinyl records. The master tapes have since been lost, and only a few copies of the vinyl disc remain. The record label Disques XXI issued some CD’s of the digitized vinyl, and critics all decry the surface wow and flutter that is a serious distraction to Mehta’s interpretation of Mahler’s First. In lieu, we propose a YouTube video featuring Rafael Kubelik (most likely conducting the Bavarian RSO).


Jean PAPINEAU-COUTURE (1916-2000)
Pièce Concertante no. 5, pour orchestre (Miroirs) (1963)
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Wilfrid Pelletier condutcing

Following a 15-minute pre-gala introduction, the Radio-Canada broadcast of the concert opens (at 15:00) with the National Anthems (performed by the OSM and Pelletier), a public address by Louis A. Lapointe, and then the Papineau-Couture work (Starting at 26:15). The work is followed by additional notes, and the introduction of the next work.

Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La Valse, poème chorégraphique, pour orchestre, MR 72
Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Zubin Mehta conducting

The audio clip begins with the Ravel work, followed by an intermission feature, with interviews with politicians and artists, including Mayor Drapeau and maestros Mehta and Pelletier.

Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Symphony no. 1 in D Major (Titan) (1884-88)
Uncredited orchestra, Rafael Kubelik conducting
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Updated Nov-12-2011 at 18:31 by itywltmt

Classical Music , Concerts , Recorded Music


  1. itywltmt's Avatar
    As an addendum to this post, I want to acknowledge the Blogspot blog of a fellow TC'er, tahnak

    In this page, he provides a performance of Mahler's First played in a live concert by the Orchestra Del Maggio Musicale Fiorentina conducted by Zubin Mehta at the Tchaikovsky Concert Hall in Moscow on 5th April 2011. This performance includes the Blumine movement - which has surely become part of most modern performances of the Symphony. If you don't mind the (at times) distracting camera work, this is a worthwhile performance to listen to - and adds the dimension of Mehta conducting, thus removing a degree oif separation to today's post... The text commentary is very good.

    Thank you, Tahseen!
  2. itywltmt's Avatar
    We are featuring the music from this post as part of our ongoing “222 day Binge Challenge” on the For Your Listening Pleasure podcast September 21, 2021. The following notes are an update with useful links we have created or discovered since the original post.

    We can’t help but feel nostalgic about that magical evening in 1963, two months before the Kennedy assassination and in the midst of Montréal’s “golden age”. The hall that was inaugurated that evening stopped being the MSO’s home base September 7, 2011 but that hall’s inaugural gala concert didn’t have the same cachet in my humble opinion.

    The original post’s archival links from Radio-Canada are no longer active, but we did manage to find the below broadcast footage of the entire concert on YouTube. The sound quality is not the greatest (I get the impression this was filmed off an old Philco TV set) but we never the less get transported to the night that was, with the pomp and circumstance launched with great zeal by Maestro Pelletier leading the orchestra in the two anthems representing Canada’s two solitudes (remember that O Canada was not officially our National Anthem until 1980!)

    How quickly we forget how young Zubin Mehta was at the time (27 years old!!). The MSO’s newest Music Director, Rafael Payare, is an old man at age… 42! The quality of the orchestra has also greatly improved – some of the mishaps in the Mahler are quickly overlooked given the solemnity of the night but would garner unanimously bad reviews were they present at a regular subscription concert.

    More Montréal nostalgia: the official program for the evening…

    Links of interest:

    The official program –
    Archived copy of the concert (video) –
    Archived (edited) audio track -

    Happy (further) listening!