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Loyola's Jean Montès shares his passion for music with others

Loyola announcement - May 27, 2008

The musical mentor

As a child growing up in Haiti, Jean Montès was smitten by classical music. His mission now: passing that passion on to young people.

Published in The Times-Picayune Sunday, May 25, 2008

By Elizabeth Mullener
Times-Picayune Staff writer

There was always music in the house, Jean Montès says, when he was a boy growing up in Las Caobas, Haiti. His mother sang all day. His father played records from his LP collection. There was the harmonium in the Eglise St. Esprit Episcopalian church next door, where his father was priest. And there was the choir, reputed to be the best in town, which rehearsed all week -- sopranos on Mondays, altos on Tuesdays, tenors on Wednesdays and basses on Thursdays. Then, of course, there were Sundays, when the church was filled all morning with glorious a capella music.

Montès loved every bit of it. But what really riveted his attention as a child were the strings. The notion of using a bow to make music was fascinating to him -- and mysterious.

He was about 10 when he started playing the cello, after begging his parents for months. Within a year, he had gotten into a string ensemble at his school. Then he joined the city's youth orchestra at 11. At 12, he formed his own chamber group. And by the time he was 13, Montès was a full-fledged member of the National Orchestra of Haiti.

From the first performance, he was smitten.

"It was magical," he says. "You can't believe you're sitting in the middle of all this. Just sitting in the orchestra is a wonderful experience. When you sit that close, you can feel the vibrations. You feel it in your tummy. It moves you."

"The connection is powerful. You can't get that when you're sitting in the audience."

Eventually, Montès became the principal cellist of the orchestra -- nurtured, trained and inspired by the music and the conductor, Julio Racine.

"It was a gift," he says. "I would sit very close to him and watch every move and try to anticipate what he would ask of me. I was always dreaming about it -- about, wow, I would love to do this one day."

Today, at 36, Jean Montès is doing it. He is the conductor of the three Loyola University orchestras, as well as the artistic director of the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra (GNOYO). He teaches conducting and oversees the academic program for strings at the university, works around the country as a guest conductor and gives solo performances when he can. And once a year, he travels back to Haiti to conduct the National Orchestra.

It all began, he says, with the cello.

"I think the cello has the most personality of any instrument in the orchestra," he says. "You can sing with a cello. You can make it sound almost like a soprano singing."

"And the shape of the instrument is beautiful. People make fun of me for saying that, but I don't care; I think it's beautiful."

"A teacher told me once that an instrument is like a key. It will open all the doors. It did that for me. The cello is my key to everything."

. . . . . . .

Montès stands at the front of a nondescript room on a lush spring day with 65 young Loyola musicians splayed out before him. They are deep into Mozart's clarinet concerto.

"Energy! Energy!" he shouts at one point."

"Ya da da da da," he whispers at another."

As the music unfurls, he shapes it constantly. He bounces on his toes, he dips at the knees, he torques his upper body. He looks meditative one moment, fierce the next, arching his wrist delicately, then punching at the air ferociously with his baton. Sometimes he sings along, sometimes he whistles, sometimes he grunts, frequently he chatters in scatty syllables. Every few minutes, he mops his face with a white terry-cloth hand towel.

The winsome little gap between his two front teeth gives a distinction to his wide-open smile, just as the lingering trace of a French accent gives a particularity to his deep, rich voice. His dreadlocks are tied in a fat bunch at the back of his neck. His mauve tie is set off by his taupe shirt. His manner is welcoming, engaging, warm.

And 65 pairs of eyes are riveted on him. Or almost.

A frail young woman blows powerfully into an oboe. An intense young man strikes a kettle drum. A trumpeter takes a furtive peek at his cell phone to read a text message.

When Montès calls a break, a dozen students swirl around him -- throwing out questions, asking advice, filing complaints. In the back of the room, an English horn player plants an extravagant kiss on a trombonist, who is wearing a frilly pink shirt the color of a ballerina's toe shoes.

"We're lucky to have him," says Pam Rossi, who drives her violinist daughter from the north shore every Saturday for her GNOYO rehearsal. "Bella has made progress under him -- just the level of music she's playing, the confidence she's gained."

"When I sit in on a rehearsal, I hear him pull apart a piece of music: This is what the composer meant, this is what he was trying to get across. He's able to create a vision in their minds of how to play their instruments."

There are certain pleasures to conducting nonprofessional musicians, says William LaRue Jones, Montès' mentor at the University of Iowa who helped mold him as a conductor.

"Being able to introduce a work to a group, having them gain an understanding of it, gain the technical proficiencies to tackle the composition and then present it to the public -- that's a real joy," he says.

"It's probably more thrilling to work with people in the discovery stages. With the New York Philharmonic, you have people who have played a piece over and over again. But for people who are playing a Beethoven symphony for the first time -- it's amazing."

And Montès, Jones says, has just the right set of skills to appreciate the experience.

"He's relaxed, he has a mellow style," Jones says. "He's not aggressive or high-pressured. It's not autocratic conducting."

"He is demanding in an artistic way and he does have high expectations. But where some people might throw their batons and stamp their feet and cuss and yell, he asks -- respectfully."

"It's not Jean who's the focus; it's the students. He's trying to help them experience the joy he finds in the music."

For Montès, teaching is an integral part of conducting. And conducting, he says, is something of a high-wire act.

"At any point, if someone plays out of tune or comes in at the wrong time, it will affect the performance," he says. "You appreciate how much focus it takes to produce something like this on the spot. To hear something so pure, so beautiful and being done right in front of you -- it's a testimony to what humankind is able to do when we all come together."

. . . . . . .

From the moment Montès arrived in New Orleans, he was enamored.

"It was February and as soon as I stepped out of the plane, the weather was beautiful," he says. "I remember driving down St. Charles Avenue and seeing those amazing trees that are almost touching each other. I thought it was the most beautiful city I had ever seen in the U.S."

"And the warmth of the people. The idea of just striking up a conversation . . . it doesn't happen in many parts of the country."

"I felt like, where have I been this whole time? I had been in all these cold places -- Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Virginia. I should have been here. It was like coming home."

On a recent sunny afternoon, in a pert Victorian cottage a block from the levee, its walls lined with Haitian art, Montès and his wife, Sarah, are dealing with a rambunctious 5-year-old and his docile baby brother. Jaz ("He has to earn the other z," says his father) has spied his tiny violin atop a tall cabinet and he is obsessed.

His parents keep the instrument out of sight because Jaz sees the function of the bow, mostly, as something to bang on the violin with. The clamor subsides only when the boy hears his father playing the cello, at which point he dashes to the back of the house with a feather in one hand and a yo-yo in the other. He fixes his soft eyes on the source of the music and calms himself immediately. Until, that is, he spots the conga drum nearby and makes a dive for it.

Montès left Haiti in 1990, when he got a scholarship to study cello at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, thanks in part to a competition he won with his chamber group. Later, he earned a master's degree from Akron (Ohio) University and a doctorate of musical arts from the University of Iowa.

He met his wife in Appleton, Wis., her hometown, where he was teaching and conducting in the public schools. A cellist herself, she had traveled to Haiti many times as a music missionary -- working with talented children who had no other opportunity for instruction.

After career stops at several universities and small-city orchestras, the couple landed in New Orleans about a year ago. Along with the visual delights of New Orleans, Montès felt a certain creative affinity for the place. He sensed there was a tolerance about the city that felt comfortable to him.

"Everybody can be who they are in New Orleans," he says. "You can see it in the people, the architecture. You can see it in the plants, the trees -- the idea of just letting them grow and be themselves. I like that. Everywhere else, they just cut things to make them fit with people's needs."

"But it seems like here there's some kind of a symbiotic relationship between the people and nature. It says a lot about what this place is."

"For me, being able to walk in Audubon Park, it's like being in heaven."

. . . . . . .

All music is good music, according to Jean Montès. But some music has more appeal to him.

Opera, for instance, he finds thrilling. Haitian music stirs his heart. Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" amazes him with its orchestral colors. Broadway musicals, on the other hand -- those he plays more to educate himself.

But he listens to everything -- from Renaissance to classical to Baroque to rock to rap to reggae to jazz to musique rassiyn from Haiti to Bob Marley and Tito Puente and Duke Ellington.

"Anybody who's become popular or famous in their field, I always try to listen to what they do because there's a reason why their music is appreciated," he says. "I try to learn from that."

"My job as a conductor, it's vast. I have to listen to everything because at any point, you can get a score that is jazz-oriented, rock-oriented, pop-oriented. You have to be able to make that music come to life. You have to know the style, understand it. You have to know what it sounds like when it's authentic. You have to know where are the kicks and the beats and the accents."

"I love that. It makes my job interesting. Many lifetimes it would take for me to get bored."

But there is no doubt that his favorites are the classics. Like an artist learning to draw before he paints, a knowledge of classical music is basic, at the core, according to Montès.

"It gives you a base to explore other genres in a deeper way," he says. "It's like learning to read so you can one day write a novel."

Montès is the first to admit that not all classical performances are exciting.

"An orchestra can be boring if they don't understand how important it is for them to be engaged in the music," he says. "Sometimes you don't see any emotion. People are just sitting there like monks, meditating."

"I want to tell them this: I'm not here just to listen to you. I want to be moved by what you're doing and connect with you. You have to share what you're feeling about the music you're performing. You have to get out of your shells and be right there, in my face."

"It has to be exciting, moving. It has to take you somewhere."

In a literal sense, Montès sometimes takes his music to unorthodox locales.

"I like to do classical music in places where people don't expect it -- like restaurants or bars or clubs, someplace where you don't expect to see a classical quartet or a cello," he says.

"I call it a classical jam. It's a very cool thing. I'm dying to try it here."

But whatever the venue, the bottom line for Montès is his belief in the power of performance, especially the singular force of live classical music. Anyone can enjoy it, he says. Nevermind training or book-learning. All it takes is a willingness to listen.

"I ask people to give me one chance," he says. "Come to one performance. I invite people to expand their enjoyment of life. Allow yourself to be taken for this particular moment. And I can tell you the experience is always amazing.

"It's not a CD. It's not an LP. It's live, something alive. It's like imagining a Degas painting being done right there in front of you and then handed to you: Here, you take this home."

. . . . . . .

Staff writer Elizabeth Mullener can be reached at emullener@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3393.