After fire destroyed much of Notre Dame Cathedral earlier this year, Paris and the world were relieved to discover that the landmark’s 19th-century Cavaillé-Coll organ – one of the most powerful and moving organs in the world – had survived the blaze.
Now, seven months after the fire on April 15, one of the few people in the world to play regularly the Notre Dame organ will be performing at the University of St. Michael’s College. Olivier Latry, the titular organist at Notre Dame since 1985, will visit St. Basil’s Church to play in honour of the 100th anniversary of the installation of the church’s organ.
Latry will also be giving a master class to students from the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music a few hours before the sold-out Friday event, which is co-sponsored by the Royal Canadian College of Organists.
“I’m very honoured to be chosen to come for the 100-year anniversary,” Latry says, noting that Notre Dame’s organ will inevitably influence his performance in St. Basil’s.
“I’ve spent two-thirds of my life at Notre Dame,” says Latry, whose January album recorded in the iconic church was the last recording made on the Notre Dame organ before the fire.
“I’m always thinking about the organ and, when I’m somewhere else, I try to reconstruct the sound that I have in Notre Dame on the organ that I will play.”
The Casavant Frères organ Latry will play at St. Basil’s was first installed in 1919. The instrument is one of the few organs in Toronto to be built according to the ideals of the French Symphonic style, which also characterizes the organ at Notre Dame.
“St. Michael’s is thrilled to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the installation of the organ at St. Basil’s, which has been at the heart of our campus community since we opened our doors on Clover Hill in 1856,” says St. Michael’s President David Sylvester.
The organ at St. Basil’s Church at the University of St. Michael’s College (photo courtesy of University of St. Michael’s College)
Since its installation, the St. Basil’s organ has provided an accompaniment to some of the most important moments in academic and liturgical life for the St. Michael’s community, including convocation and invocation masses, presidential installations, weddings, funerals – and, of course, the regular weekday and Sunday mass.
“The instrument Olivier Latry will play marries the academic and liturgical sides of our community. We look forward to welcoming members of our larger university and city community to enjoy Latry’s performance on Nov. 22, a day on which the church celebrates the Feast Day of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music,” Sylvester says.
Rev. Morgan Rice, the church’s current pastor, says St. Basil’s is “an enormously important part of not just the spiritual life of St. Michael’s, but also the community life of St. Michael’s.”
Students can often be found at the church gathering for events or volunteering with social outreach programs such as Out of the Cold, which provides food and hospitality to members of the homeless population in Toronto.
The longest continuously operating building on the U of T campus, St. Basil’s Collegiate Church first opened its doors in 1856, the day before the opening of the St. Michael’s campus at Clover Hill, its current location. The parish has been administered since its founding by the Basilian Fathers, the same teaching order that helped to found St. Michael’s.
In addition to their presence in college classrooms as professors, the Basilians have remained a central presence at St. Michael’s through their work at the church, providing another point of connection with staff, faculty and students. “I hope that Basilian presence on campus through our ministry at St. Basil’s will continue for many years to come,” Rice says.
Latry’s Nov. 22 performance will follow a special interview with John Paul Farahat, director of music and principal organist at St. Basil’s. Farahat, who has performed on the Notre Dame organ himself, directed a rebuild in 2017 of the St. Basil’s organ by Casavant Frères and the Alan Jackson Company. The rebuild involved lowering a section of the façade enough to allow the rose window on the south side of the church to be visible from the floor.
Farahat had two goals for the rebuild of the St. Basil’s organ: “First, to create an instrument for worship and prayer that was viable for the next generation, and second, to make an instrument well suited to French repertoire.”
The lowering of the organ’s façade was intended to create “a visual component to that [beautiful sound],” Farahat says, adding that a priority during the rebuild was creating “an exceptional teaching instrument for organ students in general.”
Farahat says the organ has become a resource to U of T students studying organ performance, as well as professors and music directors who come from all over the city to play the instrument.
While Latry is chiefly known as a principal organist at Notre-Dame Cathedral, he is also a professor of organ at Conservatoire de Paris. As such, his visit to St. Michael’s will incorporate both his liturgical and educational roles.
In addition to his evening concert at St. Basil’s, Latry will provide high-level personalized instruction to four students from U of T’s Faculty of Music, who will have an opportunity to join him in the organ loft Friday morning for a two-hour master class.
Faculty of Music Associate Professor Kevin Komisaruk says the master class will give these students “a rare chance to experience customized instruction from one of the world’s most experienced and accomplished professionals.
“Latry is a world celebrity among organists,” says Komisaruk, who has also been an organist at St. Basil’s. “It is always a transformative thrill for students who get a chance to see themselves in their role models.
“We are deeply grateful that St. Basil’s has consistently shown such grace and openness in supporting the pedagogic development of our students by allowing them to practise, study and perform at this historic instrument.”
One of the students in Latry’s master class is Stefani Bedin, an associate organist at the church who is also pursuing a doctor of musical arts in performance degree.
“Olivier Latry is one of the custodians of the esteemed French organ tradition, so I particularly look forward to hearing his comments on the French organ repertoire,” Bedin says. “It is wonderful that the collaboration between St. Basil’s, the University of St. Michael’s College and the wider community has made this truly exceptional event possible.”
Latry’s repertoire for the concert will include both sacred and concert pieces meant to showcase the organ’s French symphonic qualities, but the technical virtuosity is an expression of a simple desire.
“It’s nice to share my passion,” Latry says. “You are always touched by the sound of the organ. You will always find something which touches you. I think that related to the music which was composed for the instrument, there is a lot to discover and there’s a lot also to enjoy.”
More than anything else, that enjoyment is what he hopes to provide during his St. Basil’s performance.
“I would say to the people: Just come and listen and enjoy.”