Home     News   Beyond French Fries and Gravy: A Librarian’s Trip to the MOLA Conference in Montreal

Beyond French Fries and Gravy: A Librarian’s Trip to the MOLA Conference in Montreal

Quartier des Spectacles

Quartier des Spectacles


Vi King Lim

Just as migratory birds return every year to warmer climes in search of sustenance, so too orchestra librarians from all over the world make the yearly pilgrimage to the largest conference of its kind to hone their professional skills and expertise. The Conference of the Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) has been held consistently since 1983 usually in late spring or early summer in the northern hemisphere. Formed originally by a consortium of North American orchestra librarians, most of MOLA’s members come from the USA, however over the years membership has grown considerably to include orchestras from Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.This year the conference took place over four days from 29 May to 1 June in Montreal – sometimes cited as the most European of cities outside of Europe – and was hosted by the internationally-renowned Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM). With the majority of conferences held in North America or Europe so far, I had only been able to attend a handful of MOLA Conferences previously and was delighted to learn that my travel to this year’s conference had been approved. Packing my bags for Montreal, a curious realisation dawned on me that the last MOLA Conference I attended was three years ago in New Orleans and I was thus visiting another North American city with a French connection.

As it was my first time in Montreal, I was eager to see whether the ‘cultural capital of Canada’ lived up to its reputation. Montreal is, after all, home to Cirque du Soleil as well as major international jazz and comedy festivals. In the few spare days I had before and after the conference, I was fortunate to see many of the city’s sights and attend a few events which gave me sufficient sense of its enviably rich and vibrant culture infused with unique blend of Québécois charm and North American confidence. Given my particular interest in symphonic music, the perfect starting point for discovering Montreal’s art scene was its cultural heart, the Place des Arts, right on the doorstep of the hotel where the conference was held and where I stayed during my trip. This massive complex of theatres and concert halls situated in the popular Quartier des Spectacles at the eastern end of downtown Montreal is the residence of the OSM, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens and the Opéra de Montréal. Outside the complex the sprawling square off rue Sainte-Catherine, Montreal’s main commercial street, drew crowds of locals and tourists alike basking in the early summer sun.

A short Métro ride away or a pleasant stroll along the bustling streets of downtown Montreal occasionally descending into the RÉSO – a system of underground tunnels connecting buildings, stations and shopping malls, the biggest underground pedestrian network in the world – was the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) which I happily wandered through for hours. Housed in four pavilions with a fifth under construction, the museum’s permanent collection ranges from the archaeological and ethnographic to the latest contemporary art and design. Coming from Australia, I was most interested in seeing the collection of local indigenous and Canadian art since parallels might be drawn between Canada’s and Australia’s colonial past. The difference that struck me was that Canadian artists, in my opinion, didn’t face as huge a challenge as Australian artists in depicting the landscape since the Canadian environment was not as alien to European migrants as the Australian bush and outback. From the Inuit works I saw, I also wondered if, apart from embracing drawing and printmaking, Inuit art had made the transition to non-traditional and contemporary media as successfully as Australian Indigenous art?

Many would argue that a large part of Montreal’s attraction to visitors, particularly North Americans, as a city with a European feel outside of Europe can be attributed to its architecture. Although the city has its fair share of skyscrapers and modern buildings, much of Montreal’s charm resides in its historic greystone architecture from the Vieux-Port (Old Port) with its cobblestoned streets dating back to the 17th century to churches such as the Gothic revival Basilique Notre-Dame located on the Place d’Armes. Another noticeably European feature of Montreal is that French is spoken almost exclusively by the city’s inhabitants in everyday life even if they may be fluent in English. Although founded as the French colonial settlement of Ville Marie in 1642, the city was surrendered to the British in 1760. By the middle of the 19th century Montreal was dominated by English-speaking migrants and it was not until World War I that it became predominantly Francophone again. Today speaking French, or more specifically Québécois, is an important self-defining trait of Montrealers, expressing a cultural and regional identity distinct from Canadians living outside Quebec.

Back at the Place des Arts, I managed to squeeze in during my stay several concerts featuring the OSM including a performance of the entire first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre and the final rounds of the Concours Musical International de Montréal. These wonderful concerts took place in the OSM’s resident concert hall, the Maison symphonique de Montréal, inaugurated only in 2011 and costing C$105 million to build. Wrought almost entirely in unfinished and raw wood with gently curving walls of maple syrup-coloured Quebec beech, the state-of-the-art hall is a triumph of architectural innovation and understatement, balancing function and form elegantly. The stage is crowned by a handsome bespoke Casavant pipe organ, completed just last year, which treated early-comers to the Die Walküre concert with a selection of transcriptions from Wagner’s operas. From an acoustic standpoint the hall was no less stunning in its ability to project clarity of musical line and texture without sacrificing the overwhelming wash of sound one expects of an orchestra, something that is rarely achieved in modern precision-built performance venues. The building manager who gave the backstage tour of the Maison symphonique I attended was justifiably proud to show off what is without doubt one of Montreal’s architectural gems.

Equally pleased with the OSM’s new home were the orchestra’s librarians, Michel Léonard and his assistant Benoît Guillemette, who escorted groups of MOLA Conference delegates at various stages during the opening reception from the top floor of the Maison symphonique’s foyer to visit their offices and music collection located in the same building. Léonard and Guillemette run a tight ship for an orchestra whose busy program includes national and international tours occurring almost every year on top of the usual panoply of subscription concerts, recitals, pops programs and educational/family concerts. When I visited their library, the charismatically Gallic duo were in the midst of preparing over 100 orchestral sets of vocal repertoire selected by the singer competitors of this year’s Concours, which rotates from violin to piano to voice on a three-year cycle. Although only the finals are accompanied by the OSM, with 16 competitors whittled down to six finalists within the period of a week, the OSM librarians had no choice but to ensure that the chosen repertoire for all the singers – typically four or five operatic excerpts or orchestral songs for each – be ready to insert into the players’ folders before rehearsals on Monday morning. Léonard’s dedication to his profession saw him working in the office deep into the night on Sunday to make sure the job was done.The librarians work equally hard for the OSM’s summer festival called Virée classique (Classical Spree) which takes place in early August and crams what must be a record-breaking series of thirty 45-minute concerts into the space of two days!

The OSM’s current music director, Kent Nagano, understands and appreciates well the role and value of the orchestra librarian. In his welcome to the MOLA Conference, he acknowledged the vital function that orchestra librarians play in keeping the tradition of symphonic music alive, serving particular praise for Léonard. ‘Michel, like all orchestral librarians here today, is our hero. You are our support lines, our partners, our team, and yes, sometimes even our replacement parents’, Nagano enthused. ‘He has a special gift and talent for finding creative solutions to the OSM’s countless special projects. A scholar and professional musician himself, we have found we can universally depend upon Michel for information and access to the newest critical editions, the newest materials, and specialized editions … [he] has pioneered the integration of new technologies into our daily routine as well as archival systems.’ Not only was Nagano alluding to the content of the conference to follow but his tribute to Léonard might equally have applied to the host of veteran librarians in attendance. Among them was Larry Tarlow, Principal Librarian of the New York Philharmonic, who was present at the very first MOLA Conference in 1983 held in Philadelphia. I once heard an anecdote recounting Tarlow’s uncanny ability to discern solely from a photograph of orchestral musicians that the work being performed was Richard Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

Compared with previous MOLA Conferences, I somehow found this one more rewarding and thus more engaging. I put this down to the structure of the conference which consisted of eight breakouts and only two plenary sessions over the four days. Each of the breakout sessions offered between three to four different topics presented concurrently, essentially allowing participants to tailor the content to suit their needs. Those who know little about orchestral librarianship might imagine that a MOLA Conference would consist of orchestral librarians sitting around talking about photocopiers and electric erasers but in reality our work involves so much more than simply putting scores and parts on stands (which can itself present a challenge at times). The range of topics presented at the conference demonstrated the diverse facets of an orchestra librarian’s job and the knowledge and skills required in areas as wide-ranging as musicology, copyright, management and information technology, to name a few. The following selection of summaries of sessions I attended should give an idea of the depth and scope of the conference.

Previously Head Librarian of The Cleveland Orchestra, Ron Whitaker is renowned as an expert in the various available editions of Mahler’s symphonies and how they relate to the composer’s revisions of his symphonies throughout his life. His seminal article ‘The Symphonies of Mahler’ published in MOLA’s newsletter Marcato in 2001 has long served as the standard reference for orchestral librarians, however it is now out-of-date as new critical editions of several of the symphonies have been published since then. In ‘Mahler Symphonies – What Is One Supposed to Do with So Many Editions?’, Whitaker discussed each symphony systematically with regard to the available editions and their merits and flaws. Specific problems that might hold up a rehearsal were also highlighted, for example, the rehearsal figure sequences employed by different editions in the middle movements of Symphony No. 6 which have arisen from switching the order of the movements. Whitaker’s comparative study of editions attests to the rigour and attention to detail that is expected of orchestra librarians.

‘Licensing: Who, What, Where, Which, and When?’, presented by Karen Schnackenberg, Principal Librarian of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra and Jane Cross, Chief Librarian of The United States Marine Band, dealt with the complexities of various types of licences that are required for typical uses of copyright material and went into more detail than its broad title would suggest. Although orchestra librarians are generally responsible only for obtaining licences for live performance, many are also relied upon to advise on or organise licences required by the activities of other departments within the orchestra, including recording, broadcasting and web streaming. Schnackenberg and Cross helpfully clarified the difference between performing, mechanical and synchronisation rights and showed how something like uploading a video clip from a concert to a website could involve two or more of these rights and be licensed by separate companies. Special attention was given to new modes of presentation and marketing such as simulcasting – when video of a concert is projected live outside the concert hall, for example – and posting images and video clips from rehearsals and performances on social media. The legalities of posting videos on YouTube were also discussed accompanied by an explanation of YouTube’s Content ID system, the source of all those annoying advertisements that play before the videos.

Perhaps, for me, the most practical session I attended was ‘Commissioning New Works and Working with a Copyist’ presented by Gary Corrin, Principal Librarian of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and Greg Hamilton, Owner of Greg Hamilton Music Service. This session looked at ways of ensuring timely delivery and satisfactory quality of performance materials for a newly commissioned work as this is a recurrent problem for many orchestra librarians. Beginning with aspects of the commissioning agreement itself, including consensus as to the responsibilities of the parties involved (composer, orchestra, publisher), financial considerations, negotiation of details and the intricacies of co-commissions, Corrin and Hamilton emphasised throughout the session the importance of the orchestra librarian having some consultative involvement in the entire process. Orchestra librarians should expect to have input in selecting and engaging an appropriate copyist, setting style guidelines for music preparation and delivery format, calculating rates for copying fees, and delegating or assuming the production of materials, and many tips and suggestions were provided in these areas. As an orchestra librarian who is fortunate to be involved regularly in the drafting of commissioning agreements, Corrin provided the session attendees with a sample agreement which he drafted for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and which he granted permission for other orchestras to adapt to their own purposes.

‘Do You Really Need That Critical Edition? What You Should Ask and Know’ proved to be a very scholarly and thorough examination of the phenomenon of the critical edition by Ronald Broude, Director of Broude Brothers, a North American print music publisher, importer and dealer specialising in reprints, facsimiles and musicological editions. Beginning in the 19th century when the new academic field of musicology together with the ‘cult of genius’ gave rise to historical editions of the complete works of important composers, the critical edition emerged as a means of presenting a musical work in a version that is as close as possible to the composer’s original intentions. This is usually a difficult task for the editor as there are often multiple versions of a given work including the composer’s sketches, manuscript score and parts, publisher’s proof copies and early printed editions (some of which may be lost) and these sources require expert knowledge, skills and understanding to take into account and assess. The most useful and surprising advice I gained from the session was that different critical editions of a particular work can diverge significantly in their readings and that careful consideration should be made before deciding to adopt a critical edition for performance. The session concluded with an interesting hypothesis that critical editions today have developed into a means of legitimising the canon of ‘great’ composers, thus enhancing the reputation of the publisher of the critical edition, the authority of the performer using it, and the appreciation of the audience who is informed of its use.

The highlight of the conference was the plenary session on ‘Current and Future Delivery Methods of Rental Music’ involving a panel of experts from the music publishing industry: Guy Barash, Digital Content Manager at the Music Sales Group, New York; Elizabeth Blaufox, Manager of the Rental Library at Boosey & Hawkes, New York; and Peter Grimshaw, Managing Director of BTM Innovation, Adelaide. I was honoured to be asked by MOLA to moderate the session and was pleased to receive positive feedback from the other delegates commenting on the clear structure and presentation of the topics and the engagement of both the panel members and audience. Although the discussion covered current delivery methods of rental music from direct communication with self-published composers to placing orders with music publishers or their territorial agents, the focus was on the growth of digital sheet music as a viable medium for rental music. Several issues and challenges were identified in the transition from paper to digital delivery of rental music including: the creation and implementation of a universal digital format for sheet music; the development and widespread adoption of an affordable and practical means of displaying, interacting and storing digital sheet music; and the complexities of digital rights management for rental music which mainly comprises protected works. The panel members’ responses to these questions revealed that concrete foundational plans for digital sheet music were being undertaken by the major publishers of classical music in collaboration with each other for the first time and that the publishers were willing to listen seriously to orchestra librarians and musicians to develop a comprehensive and workable model rather than conduct one-off experiments or publicity stunts. At previous MOLA Conferences, I remember that sessions on similar topics were largely greeted with hostility by orchestra librarians, however this session seemed to usher in a more positive outlook as the future of digital sheet music appears to be more imminent and real than ever before.

Like other orchestra librarians who had come to Montreal to reacquaint themselves with colleagues from afar and to nourish themselves with new knowledge and ideas, I found myself leaving Montreal replenished and reinvigorated by the MOLA Conference and by what I had seen and heard. Many such as myself had wisely organised a free day or two around the conference to take advantage of their first time in the city, discovering its unique cultural and architectural attractions. This MOLA Conference was for me an unforgettable experience enhanced further by the superb concerts of the OSM I attended at the remarkable Maison symphonique. Ashamedly, I have to confess that the only thing I missed out on in Montreal was digging into a bowl of poutine, a diet-defying local dish of French fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. With my appetite for all things Québécois whetted by this trip, I know that poutine won’t be the only good reason I’ll have to make another visit to Montreal.

© Vi King Lim, 2015

Vi King Lim is Library Manager, Symphony Services International