The accidental birth of ATMA Classique

Laurence VittesWed 13th June 2012
Laurence Vittes and ATMA Classique owner Johanne Goyette in Montreal (photo: LarLaurence Vittes and ATMA Classique owner Johanne Goyette in Montreal (photo: Larisa Pilinsky)

Because Johanne Goyette couldn't make a living on the ondes Martenot

When still a youngster, Johanne Goyette played the ondes Martenot in performances of Messiaen's Turangalîla-Symphonie under Charles Brück and Honegger's Jeanne d'Arc au bûcher in Mexico under Enrique Arturo Diemecke.

'I was going to be a pro,' she tells me on a  beautiful June afternoon in the leafy Montreal arrondissement of Outremont, 'but you can't make a living on the ondes Martenot'. Instead, she wound up as the owner of a Montreal-based classical record label called ATMA Classique, named after the Sanskrit word for 'soul', which boasts more than 400 recordings in its catalogue and has led the charge to respectability for the Canadian classical music recording industry.

But first, Goyette worked for 15 years as a music producer at the French CBC before deciding she 'really needed to take control herself'. She obtained a Tonmeister degree at McGill University, and had ATMA up and running in 1994. She still runs at nearly full tilt. 'I may not work 365 days a year any more, but I still work 320, although not so long each day before I have to shut down. I started at 45, I'm now 60; I'm still learning.'

'Madame Excel', as Goyette calls herself, is responsible for cash flow, contracts and making everyone happy: the bank, the CD manufacturers, the grant makers, the musicians, and ATMA's seven full-time workers including an engineer and a graphic designer.

Making musicians happy has been one of the keys to ATMA's success. 'I started with Baroque groups because in Montreal there were many good Baroque musicians. I became friends with many of them along the way, and I had a lot of fun.'

Goyette also became friends with many non Baroque musicians including conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin (the Philadelphia Orchestra's new music director from September 2012), with whom she made 16 CDs leading Montreal's Orchestre Métropolitain. When I mention that Philadelphia will need a new label once they get their feet back under them, Goyette shrugs with a shy grin.

ATMA first hit it big ten years ago when soprano Suzie LeBlanc and countertenor Daniel Taylor sold 20,000 copies of their Handel 'Love Duets' album. Those numbers have been exceeded twice by ATMA's biggest star, Québec native, tenor Marc Hervieux whose Neapolitan songs and Christmas CDs, Goyette reports, have each sold more than 45,000 copies. 

Goyette's work style is more of a rotational, cyclical, seasonal thing than a grinding daily routine. After spending May turning out an impressive list of administrative products: grant letters, proposals, reports and business plans – all written, she assures me, 'with a lot of poetry' – Goyette will focus mostly on recordings over the summer. And while her engineering colleague on the ATMA staff 'deals with computers and microphones, moving stuff around,' she explains, 'I deal with music'.

ATMA's summer new release schedule includes 19-year-old Italian pianist Beatrice Rana (first prize winner at the 2011 Montreal International Music Competition) and soprano Karina Gauvin trilling her way through virtuoso arias by Handel, Vivaldi, Leo and Vinci.

Eagerly anticipated recording sessions include:

• Handel's Orlando, to be recorded live at the Vancouver Early Music Festival in August with the Pacific Baroque Orchestra conducted by Alexander Weimann and a cast featuring countertenor Tim Mead, sopranos Gauvin and Amanda Forsythe, and bass Harry van der Kamp

• Bruckner's Sixth Symphony with Nézet-Séguin conducting the Orchestre Metropolitain of Montreal, to be recorded in December

Along with Analekta, ATMA is one of two Montreal-based labels that are doing for Canada what Harmonia Mundi once did for France: building sustainable growth based on artistic quality, performers and repertoire which take advantage of the incredibly wide classical music culture of Montreal and of Canada.

For Goyette, being a small label has been an advantage. 'We can do things as well as the big ones; after all,' she points out frankly, 'producing good sound is not a mystery. All you need is a good hall and simple equipment.'

Being a small label with a big impact has provided Johanne Goyette definite advantages. Although she has long since given up hopes of traveling again to Mexico to play the ondes Martenot, life still holds pleasures for her. High on her list are the annual label meetings in Nashville, where her distributor Naxos USA is headquartered, where she makes a point of 'eating fried pickles, and drinking beer,' and probably spends at least a moment or two dreaming of how nice it would be to add the Philadelphia Orchestra to the ATMA roster.

Laurence Vittes's picture

Laurence Vittes

Classical music journalist Laurence Vittes is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post, Strings, Audiophile Audition and Gramophone.

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