Home at Last

Haydn – Symphony No. 94 ‘Surprise’

Maxwell Davies – An Orkney Wedding with Sunrise

Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Orchestre symphonique de Montréal / Kent Nagano.

Maison symphonique, Montréal. Sunday, October 7th, 2012.

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal is one of the world’s great orchestras and one that, until recently, did not have the concert hall it deserved to call home. Previously, the orchestra played in the Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, a 1960s construction that certainly looked imposing from outside and had a attractive auditorium but also lacked the ideal acoustic for symphonic music having been designed as a multipurpose venue. Then, last year the OSM inaugurated their new home, the Maison symphonique, which is a beautiful venue with stunning views of the city skyline from the foyers and a handsome auditorium made mainly from wood. Acoustically, it works very well. The sound is resonant and warm with a strong bass line. Yet it also has exceptional clarity which allows every detail to be heard. I was delighted to be attending my first concert there today and seeing the orchestra that gave me my first musical experiences at the top of its game.

The program was a bit of a mixed bag to be honest. I don’t quite see the thematic thread going from the Haydn to the Maxwell Davies to the Stravinsky. The connection between the Maxwell Davies and Stravinsky was self-evident yet the Haydn felt a bit like an afterthought.

During his time in Montréal, Nagano has been trying to expand the orchestra’s repertoire by incorporating earlier music than the orchestra had previously specialized in. While our ears have become accustomed to hearing period orchestras playing Haydn, this does not mean that conventional symphony orchestras cannot play it just as well. The problem here was that even with a reduced complement of 8 first violins, the orchestra felt somewhat large and failed to quite do justice to the music in the way that they could have. Part of the problem was that the acoustic was unforgiving, making clear the fact that the string playing was not quite unanimous. The other problem was Nagano’s heavy-handed conducting. This is witty music that should swing yet Nagano’s heavy tread in the minuet for example meant that that the music remained entirely earthbound. It passed the time agreeably enough but I felt that a more adventurous choice might have been a better way to start the concert.

The Maxwell Davies on the other hand was superb. The orchestra relished the piece and completely inhabited it. It also showed off the wonderful acoustic of the hall. There was a real swing to the piece and Nagano fully realized the vision of the work. The contribution of Alan J Jones on the bagpipes set the seal on a great performance of a work that I would like to hear again. It was rapturously received by the audience.

With the Stravinsky we were in much more familiar Nagano territory. His 1990s recording (with the LSO?) was a revelation bringing out voices in the orchestration that were usually hidden. He succeeded in doing the same today. The orchestra was on top form in all of the sections with fantastically strong string playing and superb brass and woodwind. If there was one thing that I could find fault with it was that Nagano seemed to be holding the orchestra back far too much rather than pushing them to give more. It felt somewhat ‘control-freaky’ and I wish that he had let this magnificent orchestra off the leash a little more often. They played fabulously and I would love to hear what they can do with someone like Nelsons or Jurowski for example. Still, it was a superb reading, one that presented the work as new. Again, it was rapturously received by the audience who are extremely well-behaved incidentally.

This was a great afternoon of music making from one of the world’s greatest orchestra. I am so happy to hear them flourishing in their new hall, it is an institution that the city of Montréal can be really proud of.

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