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Friday, October 20, 2017

Concert Review: The Idea of North

L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal revient au Carnegie Hall.
Conductor Kent Nagano poses n a street in vieux Montréal.
Photo from Harrison Parrott.

L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (for the rest of this review, referred to as the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) is one of the finest symphonic ensembles in North America. They are a stellar symphonic ensemble with a long history and a sound all their own, combining precise European string playing with the lusty, leather-lunged brass one associates with this continent. However, they have been relatively infrequent visitors to the Carnegie stage in the past  decaderecently have New Yorkers been able to hear this superb orchestra enjoyed by our neighbors to the North.



On Wednesday night, the Montrealers returned to the stage of Carnegie Hall under music director Kent Nagano for a balanced program featuring concertos by Brahms and Bartók. These works were preceded by the New York premiere of A Globe Itself Unfolding by Samy Moussa. This recent work is a single movement for organ and orchestra, and featured the orchestras resident organist Jean-Willy Kunz playing the solo part.

This work started with a mass of primal orchestral sound, in a deep and sonorous register supplanted by the low pedals of the organ. Unusually, the soloist sat at the back of the stage at his console, his sound amplified electronically as Carnegie Hall (unfortunately) still lacks a pipe organ. The upper voices of the organ penetrated the cloud, offering beams of illumination aged lifting the gloom. As the work swelled and surged, the other orchestral instruments joined the organ in its wordless song, with the  whole rising to a grand climax before descending into the nether regions once more.

The next work on the program was the well-loved Concerto for Orchestra  by Bartók, written as the composer battled leukemia on a six week retreat in upstate New York. It is in five movements and features every instrument on the stage in some capacity or another, from the versatile strings to the brassy roar of the gong. Though a masterpiece of structure and melodic content, this piece is also leavened with a sharp dose of Hungarian humor and is all the better for that.

The Montrealers displayed their good qualities throughout the complex opening  movement, where three thematic ideas argue amongst themselves and eventually struggle for dominance. The  second movement (titled "Game of Pairs") pits duos of instruments against the  whole fabric of the orchestra, the thematic ideas tossing back and forth like beach balls. In the third, a slow and moving elegy, the strings stepped to the fore, delivering wispy fragments of thematic ideas from the first two movements,, reshaped, rebuilt and and reassembled to form a slow and moving ode.

The fourth movement is the one with the gong solo and perhaps the work’s most famous section. In it, two thematic ideas are rudely interrupted by a third,a bleating March excerpted from the long first movement of the Shostakovich Lenngrad Symphony, This annoying bit of humor is quashed by the entry of the gong, which effectively bonks the little March over the head making way for more poetic utterances by the strings and oboe. The finale, with its brilliant fugato writing for strings and brass brought the whole,orchestra into a vast and triumphal shout, expertly cued and managed by Mr. Nagano. This is difficult stuff but this orchestra made it look and sound effortless in the best possible way.

The second half featured the evenings other soloist: Maxim Vengerov of playing the Brahms Violin Concerto. After a stirring first movement it featured a double-length cadenza in which the violinist teetered and tottered in a single line, over a silent orchestra. Things fell to pieces in the finale. Indeed, this famous all-out Rondo had Mr, Vengerov at odds with his instrument, playing lyric phrases in an abrupt and choppy manner and pausing to glare at his Stradivarius during the orchestral passages. However, master and violin appear to have mended things for their encore, a charming performance of the Meditation from  Massenet's opera Thaïs


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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.