The Classical Station’s interview with Jean-Willy Kunz for My Life in Music

Interview with Jean-Willy Kunz
by Bethany Tillerson (Photo credit: Antonio Saito)

This week on My Life in Music, Rob Kennedy interviews Jean-Willy Kunz, the Organist-in-Residence at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

KENNEDY: Jean, you are one of a handful of organists who are on the staff of a major symphony orchestra. Can you tell us what’s involved with a post like that?

KUNZ: I won the position as the Organist-in-Residence ten years ago in March of 2013. I’m part of the administration of the Montreal Symphony, so I work mostly with the director of programming to organize concert series and invite other organists to play at the Maison Symphonique. I have many hats at the Montreal Symphony. I’m really part of the artistic department, so I propose artists to the Director of programming and projects which really give a different view on the organ to the public. We have an orchestra audience. Part of my job is to make them discover the organ, knowing that in Quebec, the organ has been abandoned by the general public. Part of my job is to reconcile the orchestra audience with the organ, and to propose projects that will make them discover this instrument again. I also work with most of the departments of the Montreal Symphony. Everything which deals with the organ comes to my office.

In a typical concert season, the organ would be used maybe 30 times in public. I will play maybe half of those concerts. So, you know, the standard orchestra concerts in which the organ plays a small part–Mahler’s Second or Eighth Symphony, Charles Ives, or any kind of orchestra repertoire with a little organ parts, I will mostly perform those. I will also play one big recital of one big project per season, and the rest is invited organists. For this current season, we have ten invited organists. They come from five different countries. I’m in charge of these organists, so when they are visiting, I make sure that they have good conditions to practice in, that they are having a good time in Montreal, so that they will play a good concert. I really enjoy all these different hats at the Montreal Symphony.

KENNEDY: The Montreal Symphony performs in this magnificent new concert hall known as La Maison Symphonique. It’s also home to this magnificent organ. Can you tell us how the organ came about?

KUNZ: The organ at the Maison Symphonique was dedicated on May 28, 2014, which was about three years after the dedication of the concert hall itself. For the dedication of the hall in September, 2011, only the facade pipes of the organ were installed. Casavant, who built the organ, then installed the pipes in 2012 and in early 2013. So we have a four-manual Casavant organ with 83 stops, 116 ranks. It’s a hybrid instrument. It is both a tracker organ and an electronic organ. We have two consoles, so the tracker console is below the organ pipes, and we have an electric console which is movable and can be installed anywhere on the stage. We will use each console maybe for half of the concerts. Some half of the concerts will use the electric console. Half of the concerts will display the tracker console. So for concertos, we will use the electric console so that the soloist is really close to the conductor and feels like part of the orchestra. For other projects like pre-concerts, because of logistic reasons, we cannot install the electric console for these. They always take place on the tracker console. The organ has 6489 pipes over four keyboards.

KENNEDY: Montreal has a wealth of large churches and fine organists, both old and new. But churchgoers’ numbers are dwindling. What do you see as the future of the organ, as a liturgical instrument used in church services?

KUNZ: We have to face reality here in Montreal. As you mentioned, churchgoers are less and less. However, there are still a few churches in Montreal with a good liturgical program, a handful of churches which are still liturgical are very active and the organ plays a central role. But there are so many churches where the organ is not used anymore or where it is mixed with other instruments for the service. I don’t think that Montreal is a good example for the future of the art or as a liturgical instrument. I think we have to look further to the south or elsewhere in Canada, and I admire that the organ and the liturgy are so alive there and that my colleagues have great opportunities to make beautiful liturgical music.

KENNEDY: Again, because the organ is a rather specialized instrument, there aren’t many new works being written for it. But you’ve had some very good success with new compositions and getting commissions from composers. Tell us about that part of your work.

KUNZ: The Montreal Symphony usually commissions a piece for organ or for organ and orchestra about every year or every other year. Since the dedication of the organ in 2014, there have been ten new works premiered on the organ at the Maison Symphonique or commissioned by the Montreal Symphony. I’ve premiered a few other pieces for solo organ.

I also premiered a piece by Gabriel Thibaudeau, who is a Montreal-based composer. He composes music to silent movies and he composed a piece which I premiered last year for organ, small orchestra, and a solo soprano to accompany the 1923 silent movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame. To play the newly composed soundtrack to an old movie was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

When composers want to compose for the organ at the Montreal Symphony, I will show them what an organ can do. Sometimes they have never composed for the organ. I will show them what this specific organ can do and what it can’t do, because composers sometimes have wonderful ideas that cannot be applied to our organ. So it’s really a collaboration. The composer does most of the work, but I think that, as I facilitate the discovery of the instrument for composers, my part is very important too. I really enjoy the time spent around the organ console with the composers. Every time it’s different, every composer is interested in a different thing. It’s very, very interesting. It also nourishes me as a musician when I improvise or when I play other new music. Being in long discussions with composers really nourishes me. It’s important as a performer to have that connection with composers. I really make the point as much as possible to play contemporary music, to promote the works of friends and living composers. I try and play Canadian music as much as possible. It’s interesting to be in touch with all these composers.

Join us on Monday, November 6th, at 7 p.m. to listen to the full interview. Listen on, 89.7 FM, or our app!