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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Concert Review: The Voice of the North

The Orchestra symphonique de Montréal returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kent Nagano. Photo courtesy Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. 
Ten years ago, Kent Nagano became music director of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. Once regularly recorded with a fat contract on Decca classics the ensemble had suffered a falling-off following the abrupt 2002 exit of artistic director Charles Dutoit. As a result. the past ten years have seen only infrequent visits to venues like Carnegie Hall. On Tuesday night, the OSM returned to that historic stage with a program of Ravel, Beethoven and Stravinsky, designed to show their many strengths and hopefully guarantee more frequent visits.

The concert opened with the phantasmagorical Ravel piece La Valse, a French favorite usually reserved for the end of an orchestra concert. Mr. Nagano led the triple-time rhythms and shimmering orchestral textures, the sound of dancers twirling through the landscape of a war-wrecked Europe. Crisp rhythmic command and a jolt of energy from brass and heavy percussion elevated this performance, brought to a whirling, violent crash in its final bars by Mr. Nagano.

Next, the orchestra supported pianist Maria João Pires in Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. Following the intial orchestral statement, Mr. Nagano and his players took a back seat, letting this veteran pianist dazzle with her singing tone and remarkable dynamic control. The first movement's coherent argument between keyboard and ensemble yielded to the slow second, with Ms. Pires' long solo passage enchanting the ear.

The finale was slower than expected, moving at a brisk walk through the sets of variations. And yet, this allowed the music to breathe, achieving a sort of zen state. Ms. Pires played the final cadenza with contemplative grace and delicate power. Ms. Pires then obliged the audience with a further Beethoven encore, the tripartite Bagatelle in E flat major. The opening statement was played with poetic ease, followed by a quicksilver middle section that again highlighted the easy legato and lightness of touch that has characterized this artist for most of her long international career.

The second half featured Igor Stravinsky's slam-bang ballet The Rite of Spring, played here with a good deal of emotional expression from the soloists and taut rhythmic control. The opening bassoon solo and accompanying winds had a warmth that was in sharp contrast to the chugging strings that are this work's trademark. Mr. Nagano brought out the eerie, expressionist colors in the first half, with muted trumpets and horns whispering one moment and eructating the next.

Further highlights of this performance emerged in the second half, including a canon for the horns and a long solo discourse for flute passage under a slowly unspooling passage in the low strings. Finally, the dance accelerated into its last bars, reaching a raging climax with the timpani and bass drum vying for dominance. The whole built to a second whirlwind of sound before collapsing, leaving the audience enervated and exhausted.

That didn't stop the Montrealers for returning for two superb encores. First was Debussy's Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune, the work that, along with the Rite helped define orchestral music for most of the 20th century. Here, Mr. Nagano brought out the deep palette of gauzy colors thanks to evocative woodwinds and warm strings that created this work's unique aural dreamscape. The concert ended with a burst of Bizet, the Farandole from L'Arlésienne With these two powerhouse encores, Mr. Nagano and the orchestra were clearly petitioning for a return engagement.

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