Picture the scene: it is mid-November 2021 and Alexander Reford, director of Reford Gardens, is hard at work, planning the Elsie 150 festivities. The festivities are set to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of Elsie Reford, his great-grandmother and the creator of Reford Gardens. However, the weekend is upon him and Alexander is attending a concert of Mathieu David Gagnon, a young composer who will present his project Flore laurentienne Vol. I in Rimouski.

Alexander comes away from the concert with the greatest admiration for the composer. Inspired, he takes steps to create a work that will be the cornerstone of the Elsie 150 festivities. Alexander contacts Mathieu and commissions a tribute piece composed to the rhythm of Elsie’s passions. Behind the scenes, a musical aspect was already in the planning for the festivities: the museum team at the Gardens had arranged for Elsie’s violin (which had not been played for 100 years) to be restored in the spring of 2022. Essentially, they were orchestrating the transformation of a museum artefact into a musical instrument — and Mathieu’s piece would be perfect vehicle to resurrect this treasured heirloom.

A long-time fan of the music of minimalist composer Philip Glass, I was immediately taken by the complex simplicity of Mathieu’s compositions and his electronic poetry. Delivered by his own bank of Moog keyboards, Mathieu’s music is universal, but very much rooted in his territory; a territory in which Métis is halfway between his hometown of Sainte-Anne-des-Monts and his residence in St-Pacôme.

With the help of Annie Vanasse, director of the Conservatoire de musique de Rimouski, I invited Mathieu to compose a commemorative piece paying tribute to Elsie Reford, which would remain the legacy of her 150th birthday celebrations in 2022. She herself was also very much inspired by Laurentian Flora (and even had the privilege of a visit from Brother Marie-Victorin in the 1940s). The link was therefore natural, you could even say necessary.

This is how the Elsie project came about; a commissioned work for solo violin and strings. Inaugurated during the concert in the Reford Gardens’ Aire Desjardins of the Great Hall last summer, I was not alone in being moved by the piece written by Mathieu. Élise Lavoie, first violin of the Orchestre symphonique de l’Estuaire, played Elsie’s violin for the first time in a century. Elsie is thus a flower in Mathieu David Gagnon’s musicology, a flower for Elsie’s memory, but also the gift of an entire garden to the community of musicians of our region and around the world.

Alexander Reford, Director of the Reford Gardens

During the winter and spring of 2022, drawing inspiration from the documentation and historical references on Elsie, Mathieu composes while improvising on the piano. He finds inspiration in the aura that the creator of the Reford Gardens exudes through her archives, as well as in the Romantic musical era of the 1880s, when she herself played her violin. The most important criterion of the piece is to highlight this violin. Mathieu therefore composes a piece for a string quintet, including a violin solo, which will be performed with the restored violin by Élise Lavoie, a violinist, teacher and soloist at the Conservatoire de musique de Rimouski and in the Orchestre symphonique de l’Estuaire. The piece, both simple and cerebral, is 7 minutes long and is in two parts—the first, Elsie, and the second, Fleur—and is performed for the first time in public at a tribute concert on Sunday, August 28, 2022.

Thank you for hiring a living composer.

Mathieu David Gagnon, shyly addresses the concert audience.

Let yourself be lulled, audibly and visually, by Mathieu David Gagnon’s Elsie, with images from the concert on Sunday, August 28, 2022.

Like a genie in a lamp… or in a music box

Elsie will also be played throughout the summer, on demand, in Félix Marzell’s music boxes. Félix Marzell is an engineer and artist in residence at the Reford Gardens. The two hidden music boxes are hand-cranked and add a wonderful touch of whimsy and curiosity to the Gardens.

See you this summer!

Photos, illustrations and text : Charlotte Garneau

Video : Agence Ambassade