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'Precious' musical instruments removed from Montreal heritage building after fire

MONTREAL — A pair of valuable musical instruments have been removed from a Montreal heritage building that caught fire last week, raising hopes that they can be saved to play again.
Firefighters respond to a five-alarm fire at the former Monastere du Bon Pasteur, a 19th century heritage building on Friday May 26, 2023 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christinne Muschi

MONTREAL — A pair of valuable musical instruments have been removed from a Montreal heritage building that caught fire last week, raising hopes that they can be saved to play again.

Simon Blanchet, programming director at the Chapelle du Bon-Pasteur, said Sunday a Fazioli concert grand piano and a 1772 Kirckman harpsichord were both removed from the concert venue inside the chapel of the 19th century former monastery a day earlier.

Blanchet said he became emotional when piano technician Oliver Esmonde White played a few chords on the Fazioli just before it was moved, as the piano notes blended with the sound of the water running down from the ceiling and puddling on the floor.

"At least it sounded, it played," he said in a phone interview. "So that's positive. There's still hope."

He said both instruments — especially the piano — sustained some moisture damage and will have to dry out before they can be fully assessed.

But he said both were protected by covers and he's hopeful technicians will be able to restore them.

The Kirckman was also moved to a workshop, where harpsichord specialist Benoît Beaupré is optimistic that it can be returned to its full glory.

While there is moisture in the instrument, Beaupré said he doesn't believe any water penetrated the interior, which could have caused it to warp or rot.

He said there are some spots on the varnish and the decorative marquetry, and the glue holding the instrument together may have weakened. However, he believes most of the damage is cosmetic and the instrument should be "completely fixable," he said Sunday in a phone interview.

"Everything seems to be holding OK, so it's very good news and hopefully in two weeks maybe we can begin the repair," said Beaupré, who has a workshop he runs alongside his father, Yves.

In addition to being one of the oldest harpsichords in Canada, the 250-year-old instrument has some special features that were added at the time of construction which give it a unique sound, he said.

"It's a very special instrument," he said. "We don't have two like it in Quebec or in Canada."

Blanchet said the instruments' survival is a small bright light in a devastating week that has seen Montreal musicians lose one of their most important concert venues.

He said the concert hall in the former chapel offered mostly free concerts, often showcasing emerging musicians that would go on to successful careers.

The scene on Saturday was "apocalyptic," he said.

"Water was running everywhere, from the ceilings, and everything is destroyed, the stage was like a lake."

The blaze broke out Thursday at the 19th century building, which also includes a residence for seniors, a housing cooperative and a daycare centre in addition to the concert hall.

The blaze that broke out on Thursday quickly became a five-alarm fire requiring the intervention of 150 firefighters who battled the flames for 42 hours.

Both the cause of the fire and an estimate of damages remained unknown, Montreal's fire department said Saturday.

While it's fortunate that nobody was hurt, Blanchet said members of the artistic community are "in mourning" for the concert space and looking for other places to carry out their programming.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 28, 2023

Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press