Montreal Has Been a Vital Classical-Guitar Center for More Than 50 Years

Classical Guitar Montreal
From the Fall 2017 issue of Classical Guitar | BY ANTOINE BERTHIAUME

Montreal is rightly known for its many beautiful historic buildings, authentic French character, ice hockey, indie-rock bands, bagels, and even its smoked meats—but much less so for its classical guitar scene. Yet, through the years this vital Canadian city has developed some amazing local guitar players and composers, attracted devoted teachers and visiting legends, and nurtured a large and enthusiastic audience with a taste for virtuosos, thus inciting more and more youngsters to pick up the instrument. Classical Guitar asked me to profile a few of the major figures in Montreal’s classical guitar community.

Peter McCutcheon Classical Guitar Montreal

Peter McCutcheon
Peter McCutcheon and I chat in his office at the University of Montreal, where we talk about his career and the history of guitar in the city. After studying in the city for six years with Florence Brown in the 1960s, he further pursued his learning at the University with Marie and Martin Prével from ’69 to ’72. “They were among the pioneers of the classical guitar in Montreal,” he comments.

However, one of the defining moments of his career was his meeting with the great French guitarist and composer Alexandre Lagoya, who was a regular at the Orford Arts Center (OAF), just outside Montreal. “Lagoya was, without a doubt, the most influential figure of the Montreal picture in the ’70s,” says McCutcheon. Lagoya and Ida Presti—the revered married couple—toured the world giving as many as 2,000 concerts through the ’60s, before Presti’s death in 1967. The two were prominent proponents of the right-hand technique called attaque à droite, the 90-degree position used by Andrés Segovia and Francisco Tárrega, among many others. Most players here adopted the technique, and in the process, “Montreal became the bastion of the ‘école française,’” recalls McCutcheon.

“Lagoya was a great friend of Gilles Lefebvre—director of the OAF and the Jeunesses Musicales Canada Foundation—who had close ties with the Québec Minister of Education. They were greatly responsible for creating a momentum in the community of guitarists, thus encouraging institutions to open up positions for guitar teachers in universities and conservatories around the province.” In 1975, McCutcheon, just back from Paris, where he was crowned “premier prix” at the Conservatoire national supérieur, fit the profile of prospective teachers perfectly and seized the opportunity. He started teaching at McGill University, and eventually accepted a full-time position at the University of Montreal, where he has been teaching students from all around the globe ever since.

For McCutcheon, “The second wave that shook the community of players was the coming of Scottish guitarist David Russell and Cuban player Manuel Barrueco, who made yearly visits to the OAF between 1985 and 1995.” Like most players, McCutcheon was fascinated by those guitarists’ technique, and eventually their influence caused many local players to abandon the attaque à droite to adopt a more natural hand-position. At the Orford Center, “anybody who was serious about the guitar would attend their concerts and try to get a lesson with one of them.”

These days, in addition to teaching at the university, McCutcheon is the president of the Société de Guitare de Montréal, devoted to promoting concerts and master classes in the city. Founded in 1995, the Société, hosted Renaud Côté-Giguère (one of McCutcheon’s many notable protégés) in March, and in April Barrueco returned to Montreal to give a recital and teach a master class.

Patrick Kearney
Another one of the city’s great guitar institutions is the Montreal International Classical Guitar Festival and Competition (better known simply as Guitare Montréal), founded by Patrick Kearney, who is a part-time instructor at Montreal’s Concordia University, which is where I catch up with him. The prestigious competition, won by Korean sensation Bokyung Byun last year, has been a great hub for local guitarists such as Steve Cowan, Rémi Barette, and Jérôme Ducharme, who are among the last decade’s winners.

“This year, marks Montreal’s 375th anniversary, but it is also Guitare Montréal’s 15th edition, and the 350th anniversary of the founding of Lachine [the borough of Montreal where the festival was formerly located; today it is at Concordia University],” he says. The 2017 festival, which took place in May, featured winners Byun and Ducharrme, as well as Quebecois guitarist Thierry Bégin-Lamontagne, and international players such as Matthew McAllister of Scotland and Italy’s Marko Feri. According to Kearney, the festival’s greatest ongoing challenge is dealing with a relatively small demographic. Montreal is Canada’s second largest city (with a greater metropolitan area of about four million) after Toronto (six million), but the following one is Vancouver, with only two million and five hours away, by plane. For less money and the same time invested, musicians can go to Paris, where roughly 12 million eager French-speaking listeners await. So building up an audience in Montreal is pivotal. Kearney, alongside McCutcheon, has been trying to do just that.

A former student of Rafael Andi and Alberto Ponce at the École normale supérieure de Paris, Kearney had a breakthrough in 1996 after finishing third at the National Guitar Summer Workshop in New Milford, Connecticut. He went on to grab third place as well in the 1998 edition of the Guitar Foundation of America (GFA), just ahead of Iona Gandrabur. He spent last summer playing for European audiences in Holland, France, Scotland, and the Czech Republic. “In Scotland I had the honor of being one of the guest artists and teaching faculty at [Matthew McAllister’s] Isle of Cumbrae Classical Guitar Retreat,” he notes. “And in the Czech Republic I had the privilege of being included among such artists as the L.A. Guitar Quartet at the 25th Anniversary of the Brno Classical Guitar Festival, directed by the internationally renowned virtuoso Vladislav Blaha.”

Back home, Kearney can only say great things about Montreal: “Great food, multiculturalism, bilingualism, openness.” Asked if some of his students complain about the notorious winters, he joked about one of his pupils coming to class in slippers even during the coldest weather. (Actually, Montreal has a very well-organized subway system—once on a train, you can access Concordia without ever stepping outside.) Reputed for his interpretation of Carlo Domeniconi’s Koyunbaba, Kearney will soon be releasing a new album titled Novae, featuring Canadian composers such as Harry Stafylakis and Denis Gougeon.

Jérôme Ducharme
Ducharme was waiting for me in his classroom at McGill University. “Montreal can arguably compete with any Canadian city and with many international cities for the quality of teaching,” he says. Compared to the 1970s, when most serious guitarists still felt they had to expatriate in order to become accomplished players, the city now offers many different options to students eager to master the instrument.

Ducharme spent eight years at the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, but he argues that “traveling and getting challenged by different teachers is a must. Montreal has a lot of great teachers, yet going abroad when you are young is really the thing to do. I tell my students not to stay too long in the same place. The first years are the ones where the learning curve is the steepest, and the richest. Afterwards, it becomes more of a routine.”


In 2003, Ducharme started looking at learning opportunities in Europe. After seeing Stephan Schmidt at the Festival de Lanaudière in Joliette, Quebec, where Ducharme is from, he moved to Switzerland because Schmidt was working there. He had been stirred by Schmidt’s interpretation of Bach’s lute works played on a ten-string guitar, but it turned out that Schmidt was also busy running the Musik-Akademie der Stadt Basel, so Ducharme ended up splitting his sessions with Oscar Ghiglia, one of Segovia’s
most prestigious alumni.

Back in Montreal, he pursued a doctorate with McCutcheon. After scoring third place in the 2004 edition of the GFA, he finished first in 2005, becoming the first Canadian to do so. “I won a set of tuning pegs,” he says with a laugh, “but mainly the chance to tour North America and record a recital with Naxos featuring works by Hétu, de Falla, and Ginastera, among others.” He performed on a guitar made by René
Wilhelmy, one of the most praised luthiers in the area, whom I only recently realized lives a block away from my house in the Villeray quarter of Montreal. You can also hear and see Ducharme on a 2005 Mel Bay DVD, which features a pair of works of Montreal composer Maxime McKinley, among other works. At McGill these days, Ducharme has a dozen students from Canada, South Korea, France, and the U.S.

Steve Cowan
Steve Cowan, one of Ducharme’s students, is definitely a musician to watch. I Skyped him while he was on tour in Aberdeen, Scotland, and I realized we had actually played together on a piece by Tim Brady for 20 electric guitars last year at the Sound Symposium in St. John’s, Newfoundland, where Cowan is originally from. (My guess is I was too busy following the conductor to notice him.) Impressively, Cowan had managed to book a solo guitar tour that also took him to Munich, Paris, Copenhagen, and a few cities in Norway and the Netherlands—quite a feat for a musician working on his own and communicating mostly through email.

Back home, he recently put out his debut album, Pour Guitare, featuring music for solo guitar, guitar duo, and electronics, exclusively by Canadian composers, including works by Cowan, Claude Vivier, Jacques Hétu, and Jason Noble, among others. (The disc was favorably reviewed in the Spring 2017 issue of Classical Guitar.)

Cowan completed a master’s degree at the Manhattan School of Music with David Leisner, and it was there that he heard about Michael Laucke, known for commissioning pieces from many composers from Quebec in the 1970s, and premiering more than 25 original works from Canadian composers, including Vivier’s Pour guitare, the title track on Cowan’s album. After completing his studies in the U.S., Cowan wanted to move back to Canada, and at the Domaine Forget (pronounced for-jay) music festival in Charlevoix, Quebec, he was introduced to McCutcheon and to many other Montreal musicians who praised the guitar community there. Excited to hear that Alvaro Pierri was in town, and drawn by the contemporary music scene, Cowan decided to pursue his doctoral studies with Ducharme at McGill, where he’s now is in his third year. “I like the French aspect, the quasi-European vibe [of Montreal],” he says. “There are so many students here specifically in classical guitar, and I have been able to get a lot of performance and teaching work, even as an Anglophone. Montreal also keeps a low cost of living, which is great for the musician life.” Nearby cities like Toronto, Ottawa, Boston, and New York have presented further opportunities for gigs. “It’s a fantastic place to live as an artist. I don’t see myself leaving the city—it has everything I need.”

Sebastien Dufour
For this interview, Sebastien Dufour and I stop in a café on Montreal’s picturesque Mont-Royal street.

Dufour is part of the Montreal Guitar Trio (MG3)—alongside Marc Morin and Glenn Lévesque (both former pupils of McCutcheon)—one of the most active local ensembles focused on classical guitar. “Montreal is one of the most hybrid cities, providing a mix of all genres and influences, and no barriers,” he comments. “And we can thank the Festival international de jazz de Montréal [FIJM] for this openness.”

Even though many local jazz musicians complain that the “jazzfest” isn’t jazzy enough— with the likes of Prince, the B-52s, Bob Dylan, and Snoop Dogg, among the featured artists in past years—hosting one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world has definitely opened the Montreal audience to a palette of many different colors. “The way musicians here perceive and see music,” Dufour says, “has been greatly affected by this one eclectic festival, responsible for introducing Montreal to such musicians as Michel Camilo, Paco de Lucía, Miles Davis, Bela Fleck, and so many more. In a way, too, the festival paved the way for MG3.”

Inspired by composers such as Egberto Gismonti, Ennio Morricone, Astor Piazzolla—who were influenced by classical music but also vernacular music, as well—the group started exploring ways of bringing the instrument to uncharted territories and new audiences. “We also regularly tour with the California Guitar Trio [a steel-string acoustic ensemble] as a double-feature,” Dufour says. “It’s a mutually beneficial association that has allowed us to build an audience by putting on concerts centered on the guitar.”

After so many years of exploring so many different musical avenues (including playing with the California Guitar Trio as a sextet), MG3 is back to basics this year with Danzas, an album released on Analekta Records devoted to the music of Manuel de Falla, Paco de Lucía and Agustín Barrios Mangoré (see review, p. 64). “In a way it’s a full circle,” Dufour says. “We did all this work, all these collaborations to now get back to the roots. I feel like I’m in university again, studying the classics.” MG3 was set to tour this spring, giving a dozen concerts across the UK.

Alvaro Pierri
Having been exposed very young to Alvaro Pierri’s 1995 recording of Villa-Lobos choros, etudes, and preludes—which I still consider a reference—I was surprised and flattered to see him so thrilled to come to my house for an interview, which lasted two hours.

Originally from Uruguay, where his aunt Olga first taught him the guitar, he became a student of the great teacher Abel Carlevaro: “Carlevaro only taught once a week, on Mondays. The lessons were only 30 minutes, but since I was his last student at 7 o’clock, very often I was still there until 10. We improvised together and played all kinds of music.”

Pierri first came Montreal in 1981, while recording in New York. “It was in February,” he says, “I wanted to experience the cold!” This initial visit gave him the chance to meet composer Jacques Hétu (who later wrote a recital for him), and everything sparked from there. “I was invited to perform and teach at the Orford Festival, and by the same occasion teach at McGill University, the Conservatoire, and the Université du Québec à Montréal, where I eventually was offered a full-time position.

“I stayed for the people,” he continues. “Montreal is unique—it’s North American, French, Nordic, and cosmopolitan. You can feel that vibe on the music scene. It’s important to respect, cultivate, and celebrate cultures. But it’s also important to mix them. In Brazil, for example, the tradition is very alive, but it’s a blend of Portuguese, Italian, and African—a perfect illustration of a culture that is proud but open.”

Pierri lives in in Montreal, but he spends much of his time traveling the globe, teaching in Vienna, L.A., and Hong Kong, and also performing all over. One of his favorite recordings was published in 1991 on the Amplitude label: it includes the Suite pour Guitare by Hétu (the same one Cowan recorded) and Agua e vinho by Egberto Gismonti. He has four recordings in the making this year, including collaborations with the Logos Quartet and the Orchestra della Svizzera Italiana. You can also revisit his work by watching him perform with Astor Piazzolla on a DVD released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2007. This year he has performed at the GFA in L.A., in Milwaukee at the Guitar Series presented by University of Wisconsin, and is scheduled to play in December in San Francisco at the Omniconcerts Series.

Simon Duchesne and Hugo Larenas

I continued my caffeine intake on Mont-Royal Avenue with Duchesne and Larenas, two young players driving many different projects, including their own duet, Con Fuoco, on a self-titled album.

“It’s amazing to see the reaction to the music,” says Duchesne. “Very often people have never seen a more modern approach to the guitar” (i.e., various percussive techniques). Duchesne grew up playing rock and heavy metal, and is also part of Tim Brady’s electric guitar quartet. They played a very fuzzy version of the Art of the Fugue by Bach last year at the Montreal Baroque Music Festival and are touring Canada this year with a set of Canadian compositions. Forestare, led by Alexandre Éthier, also occupies part of Duchesne’s time. As a group for 12 guitars (often playing extended guitar quartets), the band has now been active for 15 years. “You have to be creative to bring the classical guitar on stage and draw people in to venues,” he says. “There’s an ‘awe’ effect having all those instruments on stage.” Their last recording, titled Baroque, explores music from Bach, Vivaldi, and Lully.

Like most of their colleagues, they both split their efforts between teaching and performing in all kinds of projects. “There are not enough job opportunities to only play solo or duo, so we have to be really creative and open,” notes Larenas. Classical guitar is not embedded in Quebec’s culture as it
is elsewhere. “Lagoya, McCutcheon, Pierri, and such did a great job propelling the instrument. Unfortunately, it didn’t have a lasting effect with the audience. Here, the guitar is seldom perceived as a soloist instrument.”

Larenas tours Canada, Europe, and South America with Intakto, run by Chilean singer Alejandro Venegas; with Color Violeta, based around arrangements of compositions by the Chilean folk musician Violeta Parra; and with Willy Rios, a charango player from Bolivia. “It’s absolutely not a compromise,” he says. “I make a living playing what I like—the nylon-string. It’s a mix of everything I love—South American music, flamenco, and classical. I use my own voice and express my musicality in varied contexts. Montreal allows this kind of meeting. Musicians come here from abroad to launch their career, and then get the support to expand their notoriety around the world.”