Christopher Jackson is the founder and leader of the vocal ensemble Studio de Musique de Montréal (SMAM).
For nearly 40 years Jackson and SMAM have performed and recorded a wide range of repertoire, from the Renaissance to contemporary works. SMAM’s newest recording is Musica Vaticana, a collection of sacred music by 17th century Roman masters. Ariama editor Craig Zeichner spoke with Jackson about the new album.
Ariama: The repertoire on Musica Vaticana is glorious but not very well known.
Christopher Jackson: Some of it has been edited for the first time and the Mass by Vincenzo Ugolini was from the original print of the score from the 17th century. There are pieces by Giovanni de Macque and some other works where I got help from musicologist Noel O’Regan, working from his own scores. I don’t think the Giuseppe Pitoni Dixit dominus has ever been recorded though, unfortunately the work is hardly known. Pitoni is really only known for one piece, a Cantate domino that every church choir sings. But that’s it. We perform a lot of music that hasn’t been performed before, by either preparing new scores or working with musicologists.
Ariama: Listening to the recording you realize how good this Roman polychoral style is, but we don’t hear it very often. Why is that?
CJ: That’s a good question and I’ve been asking it myself because it is such great music and there’s so much of it. I think musicologists Graham Dixon and O’Regan, both experts in the field, agree that the shadow of Palestrina was so great that everybody who followed him was eclipsed. It’s the only explanation I have for it because some of the music is really beautiful. It’s so full of invention and so different from the Venetian style, which was very vertical. This style has a lot more polyphony and a very interesting expressive side.
Ariama: SMAM has a vast and varied discography with music from Marc-Antoine Charpentier to Arvo Pärt. What guides your repertoire choices besides having great singers?
CJ: Thank you. I do have great people working with me and that’s part of it. I mean it’s really about the capacity of the group. For instance, a couple years ago we came out with a disc of the Orlande de Lassus Lagrime Di San Pietro. It was an example of the association between the quality of the singer and the kind of music we do. But about 20 years ago I did a Lassus recording for the CBC and it was a disaster. We just weren’t ready for it. Then about six years ago I started to do Lassus again because I felt that the group was sufficiently right (especially intellectually) and ready to get a grasp on this difficult music, and I was right.
Occasions also present themselves. The Pärt Stabat Mater was a project that ATMA [ATMA Classique, the Montréal-based record label] wanted to do with the Montreal Baroque Music Festival and me. But I had gotten my foot into that music earlier because the CBC has asked us to do something with it as well. Those were the two possibilities proposed to me, I didn’t plan to go there at first, but I did have an interest in Pärt and thought I could do it.
Ariama: Composers like Pärt and John Taverner go well with old music.
CJ: Exactly. Part of the substance of the music itself is inspired by older music, mostly Medieval. Pärt has a lot of Medieval structure, but there’s also an implicit power in the music, which speaks to me. I really didn’t understand it at the beginning, but now feel there’s something I can really latch onto, but it took a while.
Ariama: I’ve been very impressed with the early music scene in Montréal.
CJ: We are lucky in Montréal. We’ve been in town for almost 40 years now, so we have a presence. But there has also been a tradition. Kenneth Gilbert and Bernard Legacé were teaching harpsichord and organ back in the 70s, so there’s been a legacy of this kind of performance here. This town really is great, you can pull together a very good baroque band and a fine group of singers very easily, so now there are all kinds of series and groups that have grown up over the years and it makes it very interesting.
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