Yannick’s Return To Montreal Band Is a Mixed Affair

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Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts pianist Beatrice Rana with the Orchestre Métropolitain Oct. 18, 2013 (François Goupil-Orchestre Métropolitain)
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, music director of hometown Orchestre Métropolitain since 2000, with piano soloist Beatrice Rana.
Oct. 18, 2013 (François Goupil-Orchestre Métropolitain)
By Robert Markow

MONTREAL — The Orchestre Métropolitain (OM), Montreal’s second orchestra, never ceases to surprise. Formed 33 years ago mostly by graduating students from the city’s French-language music schools, it has grown into an ensemble of formidable quality and significant community impact, performing as it does not only in Montreal’s main concert hall, but also in many of the outlying districts as well. In the latter capacity, it was known for some time as L’Orchestre Métropolitain du Grand Montréal (of Greater Montreal). On any given night, the ensemble can sound as good as its far more illustrious counterpart, the Montreal Symphony.

Yannick  Nézet-Séguin, in a recent  rehearsal with the Orchestre Métropolitain. (Philippe Jasmin)
Nézet-Séguin, loyal to the band that nurtured him. (Philippe Jasmin)

The OM has been blessed with a continuous succession of outstanding music directors, each of whom brought the orchestra to a  higher plane of artistic excellence. Latest in this line of succession is none other than Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who was virtually unknown outside his native Montreal in 2000, when he accepted the post. Now, in between engagements with the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, the Salzburg Festival, and the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he also is music director, he maintains an admirable loyalty to the band that nurtured his budding career, returning several times a season to lead its concerts.

One of the hallmarks of the OM is its imaginative programming. Typical was the concert Nézet-Séguin led in the Maison symphonique (Montreal’s main concert hall) on Oct. 18, which brought together three major works premiered in 1913. The concert was to have opened with Debussy’s Jeux, but the recent death of Montrealer Paul Desmarais – entrepreneur, friend of presidents and prime ministers, self-made billionaire, and generous patron of the arts, including the OM – resulted in its replacement with Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The OM contingent played it with warmth and dignity, but the mood was shattered by applause, first from a single soul who responded as if he’d just heard the end of Mahler’s First Symphony, and then, after a long silence, from the remainder of the audience. Applause after a memorial tribute? Is this something new?

Pianist Beatrice Rana, fresh from Cliburn win. (Julien Faugère)
Italian pianist Beatrice Rana, fresh from Cliburn win. (Julien Faugère)

The next surprise came from the soloist in Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto. Twenty-year-old Beatrice Rana, first-prize winner at the Montreal International Competition two years ago (here’s a video clip) and second-prize winner at the Van Cliburn this year, turned in her best playing not in the work’s prevailing fiery virtuosity but in its quiet, contemplative moments, where she proved a sensitive poet of the keyboard. In the flashy, glittery writing for which the concerto is famous, she was unable to coax more than a forte from the instrument, and too many passages were muddied through over-pedaling.

At Quebec’s Lanaudière Festival* four years ago, Nézet-Séguin and the OM delivered one of the most thrilling performances of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring I have ever heard. I couldn’t wait to hear them play it again.

Nézet-Séguin in concert with the Orchestre Métropolitain. (Jasmin)
Archive close-up of Nézet-Séguin with the orchestra. (Philippe Jasmin)

Unfortunately, this time around it lacked the primal energy, mystery, and visceral impact that exploded from the stage in that earlier performance. Now it sounded more like a run-through by a well-oiled orchestral machine that knows the work inside-out (technically, this Rite was about as good as it gets). Or perhaps a race-through. Much of Part I was taken at such speeds that all sense of dramatic tension was lost. At times balances were askew, with more accompaniment than melody. Too many details were lost amidst the blizzard of notes. One yearned to hear more from the eight horns, but the lower brass truly distinguished themselves, as did principal timpanist Jean-Guy Plante.

There were more surprises: The sold-out concert was attended by many young people, something you don’t see at Montreal Symphony or Opéra de Montréal events. However, this brought with it a fair amount of annoying whistling and whooping as part of the applause, which seems to be turning into a trend. I heard it even after the Chicago Symphony’s performance of the Verdi Requiem earlier this month.** Is this a follow-up to the foolishness of now-obligatory standing ovations?

Hardly a surprise (it happens all the time), but worth noting, were short talks by Yannick, as he is known to nearly all, before each half of the program.  He welcomed listeners and put them at ease with the music they were about to hear, often with witty, offhanded, and humorous remarks. Small wonder the OM has such a strong and loyal audience base.

*Last summer’s Lanaudière Festival was previewed here.

**Available on-demand here.

Formerly a horn player in the Montreal Symphony, Robert Markow now writes program notes for that orchestra and for many others in Canada, the U.S. and Asia. He writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.

The Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, at the Maison symphonique Oct. 18, 2013 (François Goupil-Orchestre Métropolitain)
The Orchestre Métropolitain, Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducting, regularly performs at the Maison symphonique.
Oct. 18, 2013 (François Goupil-Orchestre Métropolitain)