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Conductor Christopher Jackson helped musicians shine

Christopher Jackson always led a concert with a red pencil in his right hand.

2007 Allison Cordner/Allison Emily Mary Cordner/SMAM

Imagine you are at a concert by the Studio de musique ancienne de Montréal (SMAM), this country's first and one of its best early music ensembles specializing in period performance practice. For two hours you sit on a hard church pew, but barely notice because the music – by Palestrina, Monteverdi and other Renaissance masters – suspends time, leaving you dazed.

Under the guidance of conductor and artistic director Christopher Jackson, this ensemble established Montreal as one of North America's leading centres of early music, attracting the best talents to the city.

Instead of making for the door, you look for Mr. Jackson to congratulate him. You follow the crowd to the bustling backstage area, but there's no sign of him.

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"Christopher?" says a singer changing out of his concert attire. "I don't know. Did you look outside?"

Out a back door and huddled next to a fire escape is Mr. Jackson, smoking a cigarette, his bow tie askew, shivering from the cold. He's not being antisocial, but greeting fans is not really his thing.

Mr. Jackson, who died of complications from lung cancer in Montreal on Sept. 25 at the age of 67, avoided the spotlight. That may seem like an odd trait for a performer, especially a conductor. There are conductors – Yannick Nézet-Séguin comes to mind – who channel the energy of their musicians and become the focal point of a performance. Mr. Jackson was not like this. When he led a concert, always with a red pencil in his right hand, he practically disappeared. It was the musicians around him – singers, harpsichordists, theorbists, viola da gambists – who shone, and Mr. Jackson was the man who allowed it all to happen.

"Christopher let people sing," says Kelly Rice, a former CBC producer who collaborated with Mr. Jackson on numerous recordings. "It was never a free-for-all, but he created unity by allowing singers to be who they are."

Soprano Shannon Mercer, who started singing with SMAM at 19, concurs: "Christopher's understanding, dedication and commitment to early choral music were a complete revelation to me as a young singer. I had never worked with anyone as confident about allowing the genius of the music to just speak through the singers."

A more ambitious conductor might have sought wider recognition for his ensemble. After all, SMAM is not exactly a household name in Canada. But fame was not a priority for him. His satisfaction came from honest music-making, and that's where he focused his attention.

Christopher Donald Jackson was born in Halifax on July 27, 1948, the eldest of three sons. His father, Donald Jackson, was an Annapolis Valley Baptist minister; his mother, Hester Beach, was an accomplished pianist who also played the organ in churches where her husband preached. His brothers also pursued careers in music. Timothy is a jazz pianist living in Montreal; Peter, the youngest, stayed in Nova Scotia, where he worked as a pianist and organist before his death seven years ago.

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Mr. Jackson moved to Montreal in the mid-1960s to study organ and choral conducting at the École de musique Vincent-d'Indy and the Conservatoire de musique de Montréal, and he embraced the francophone culture of his adopted city. He worked briefly in the late 1960s as a technician for Casavant Frères, the reputed organ-builders in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., and did extensive historical research on the organs of France and Quebec, a subject that would remain a preoccupation for the rest of his life.

"Christopher made pilgrimages to Europe to study and play some of the great historic instruments," notes John Grew, professor emeritus at McGill and artistic director of the Canadian International Organ Competition. Those trips, coupled with his work in organ-building, served Mr. Jackson well for his work on the organ committee of the Conseil du patrimoine religieux du Québec. For more than 25 years, he visited the province's churches to determine what could be done to preserve their instruments. "Christopher loved nothing better than crawling through dusty old organs!" Mr. Grew adds.

In 1974, Mr. Jackson and organists Réjean Poirier and Hélène Dugal co-founded SMAM, the first Canadian ensemble specializing in historically informed performances of early music. Montreal was a turbulent place at that time, as Quebec society was undergoing secularization, politics was becoming defined along federalist and separatist lines and the sexual revolution was taking hold. Mr. Jackson welcomed this new era of social freedom and artistic experimentation. He may not have realized it at the time, but the work he embarked on with SMAM was groundbreaking.

"One of the very first jobs I had as a freelance musician in Canada was at [the Centre d'Arts] Orford where I met Christopher Jackson," recounts Jeanne Lamon, chief musical adviser of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. "He was a very energetic proponent of early music and an intelligent musician who worked especially wonderfully with singers. He almost convinced me to move to Montreal on the strength of SMAM and the early music scene in that city at the time."

We take it for granted now, but it was Mr. Jackson who encouraged the return to basso continuo accompaniment (organ or harpsichord with a bass stringed instrument) in performances of baroque music in Canada. He also introduced audiences here to theorbos and natural trumpets, to grand motets by Desmarest and Dumont and to the instrumental colours of cornettos and sackbuts.

During a concert tour of France in 1984, Mr. Jackson fell in love with Dominique Lortie, a sackbut player with SMAM. They married and had three sons: Mathieu (1985), Simon (1987) and Nicolas (1992).

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While he covered a wide range of music with his ensemble, Mr. Jackson's performances of the sacred music of the high Renaissance and the early baroque were definitive: a cappella masses and motets by Palestrina and Victoria, oratorios by Schuetz, the Vespers of Monteverdi. Nobody performed this music better. It was red-blooded and sensual.

Another factor that benefited the music was acoustics, a subject that fascinated Mr. Jackson. He was keenly aware of the importance of acoustics to the compositions and wished to recreate those effects in performance.

The Sanctuaire du Saint-Sacrement on Montreal's Mont-Royal Ave. East was his sacred space of choice in the 1980s and early nineties; later, Saint-Léon de Westmount Church became SMAM's usual concert venue, with its five-second reverb and vivid ceiling frescoes. Hearing the latter space resound with the ingenious echo effects in Monteverdi's Magnificat at a SMAM concert on Oct. 4, 1998, remains one of the most thrilling musical experiences of my life.

Mr. Jackson's funeral was held on Oct. 10 at the Chapelle du Grand Séminaire de Montréal, another one of the spaces he and his musicians filled with music over the years. It began with Mr. Jackson's widow, Ms. Lortie, walking down the centre aisle carrying her late husband's red pencil, which she laid on the urn designed and built by their son Simon, a cabinet-maker.

Montreal's early music community – including many expats – attended in great numbers. Performers included organists Mr. Grew, Mr. Poirier and Yves-G. Préfontaine, and the choir of SMAM, augmented for the occasion by former singers, friends and colleagues to sing the first section of J.S. Bach's motet Singet dem Herrn. Andrew McAnerney, who has been directing SMAM during the months of Mr. Jackson's illness, conducted. Everyone sang the hymn Let all mortal flesh keep silence (Picardy) and then the crystalline high Cs of Allegri's Miserere mei, Deus floated skyward.

Tributes continue. Concordia University, where Mr. Jackson taught since 1978 and served as dean of fine arts from 1994 to 2005, has established a memorial fund. SMAM's concert on Oct. 18 at Saint-Léon de Westmount Church will be given in Mr. Jackson's memory, and on Oct. 23, at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts, Early Music Vancouver will dedicate its performance of Monteverdi's Vespers to Mr. Jackson.

Matthew White, artistic director of Early Music Vancouver and a singer with SMAM in the 1990s, writes, "I will be forever grateful to Christopher for first introducing me and many others to this wondrous music that still has the amazing power to transform lives over 400 years later. Though he will be sorely missed, his artistry, humility and enthusiasm have had such a profound effect on so many people, that it is hard not to look back upon his life as anything other than a gift."

Robert Rowat is a CBC Music producer.

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