Music lives on after Montreal monastery fire nearly ruins historic instruments

Olga Kudriakova plays the fully restored Fazioli concert grand piano on Wednesday. It was the first time anybody had performed on the instrument since it had been repaired. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)
Olga Kudriakova plays the fully restored Fazioli concert grand piano on Wednesday. It was the first time anybody had performed on the instrument since it had been repaired. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC - image credit)

About four months ago, the Monastère du Bon-Pasteur, a monastery in Montreal that dates back two centuries, burned for nearly two days.

Along with the history, art and the heritage building itself, the fire affected a seniors' residence, a housing co-operative, a daycare and condominiums.

There were also instruments in the chapel, which had long served as a free performance venue.

Among those instruments was a Fazioli concert grand piano. Now that piano — one of the first sold by the Italian company — has been restored and a new location has been found so the show can carry on.

Olga Kudriakova is the first person to perform on the restored piano and says it sounds even better than before.

"Now it's more powerful," said Kudriakova.

She played it at the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) on Wednesday, the piano's home for now.

The new location, situated downtown, will serve as a venue until the chapel reopens, but that's fine with Kudriakova, who said "the acoustics are amazing."

Piano restored by local expert

Oliver Esmonde White is the founder of the Montreal-based Piano Esmonde White, which offers piano repair and maintenance services. His company restored both the Fazioli and a 1772 Kirckman harpsichord.

The instruments were both removed from the concert venue inside the chapel on May 28.

He said it was emotional hearing Kudriakova play. When his team pulled the piano from the chapel, water was still dripping from it, he said, but he was determined to make it sound better than when he first heard it played 28 years ago.

At the time of the fire, experts like Esmond White were unsure if the piano and harpsichord could be fixed — they had been almost completely submerged in water — but both instruments have been fully restored.

Both the Fazioli piano and a 1772 Kirckman harpsichord were damaged by water during the fire, but have since been restored.
Both the Fazioli piano and a 1772 Kirckman harpsichord were damaged by water during the fire, but have since been restored.

Both the Fazioli piano and a 1772 Kirckman harpsichord were damaged by water during the fire, but have since been restored. (Kwabena Oduro/CBC)

The piano had extensive damage, Esmonde White said, with internal parts swelling and twisting. Everything needed to be straightened out to dry properly, he explained. Damage can still be seen on the piano, but leaving the "scars" was intentional as it shows what the piano has gone through, he said.

"The history of anything is important," he said. "When you hide everything, you're missing its history. You're missing what it has been through. Why would you want to hide something that, at this point, makes it not only unique, but beautiful?"

The piano, he said, has long played an important role in Montreal's music scene.

Carrying on tradition of free concerts

Simon Blanchet, programming director at the Chapelle du Bon-Pasteur, said temporarily moving into the CCA allows the shows to go on for free — something that gives young musicians a place to perform, while giving the community access to music.

"When you finish your studies, it's not easy to play in a major concert hall in the city. So the chapel is here to welcome these young musicians and give them the opportunity to play on a professional scene," he said, naming several renowned musicians who got their start at the chapel.

It's not clear when the chapel will reopen. Right now, Blanchet said crews are working to protect the chapel from the winter elements. Restoration work should begin next year.

Finding a temporary location until then was not easy, he said, but the CCA opened its doors to the performances.

There will be some 100 performances between now and next June, said Blanchet. "All free, of course."

The temporary venue and the fact that the historic instruments were salvaged and restored are two things Blanchet is "really happy" about.

He agrees with the decision to not cover up the blemishes caused by the water damage. The legs, he said, were soaking in water when the piano was recovered.

"It has a history," said Blanchet. "We decided to keep it that way, and now the fire is part of the history of the piano."