By Robert Markow
MONTREAL — The secret of success is a phrase much-bandied about, but in the case of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, there is no secret. At the concert on April 17 with the Orchestre Métropolitain (OM) in Montreal’s Maison symphonique, he demonstrated once again just why he has succeeded so brilliantly in his meteoric rise to international stardom: charisma with the audience, flair on the podium, solid knowledge of the scores, respect for and from the musicians, and ability to infuse the music with the sense that you are hearing it for the first time. Youthful enthusiasm and a hyper-energized podium style à la Leonard Bernstein don’t hurt, either. Then there is one more important quality that distinguishes this man — loyalty.
The Orchestre Métropolitain is the orchestra that granted Yannick (as everyone calls him) his first post fifteen years ago as a young man of 25, the orchestra that kick-started his ride to world-wide fame, and he has never forgotten this. With engagements far into the future with the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, Salzburg Festival, Metropolitan Opera, and the like, not to mention his permanent position as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, he could easily by now have told the OM he no longer had time for them. Yet he returns each season to conduct at least half of their programs, and the results are palpable. It is customary to call the Orchestre Métropolitain “Montreal’s second orchestra,” but for some time now it has often sounded as good as, or even better than, its more illustrious counterpart, the Montreal Symphony.
In tandem with Nézet-Séguin’s own growth as a musician, the OM continues to grow in quality, spurred along by the infusions of energy and musical maturity the conductor brings with him each time he visits his home town. Balanced sound throughout each section is now the norm. Strings in particular have improved immeasurably. Every last player, right to the back of each section, gives 100% of her or his effort (women constitute nearly three-fourths of the OM’s string section). Were this a military outfit, one senses that every member would unquestioningly follow the conductor into battle and die fighting.
OM audiences have come to expect — and welcome — a few introductory words about the evening’s program from Nézet-Séguin. With typical good humor, he began this one with “Good evening…bon soir” (rather than the reverse, as is de rigueur in this francophone city), then excused himself for the “gaffe” by reminding the amused audience that it was about to hear a program bearing the title “English Gardens.” There wasn’t much to do with gardens in Elgar’s Enigma Variations or Cello Concerto, and even less in Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony, but it hardly mattered.
As usual with a Yannick/OM concert, the hall was sold out and the applause was wildly enthusiastic. (“English Gardens” will be repeated in Pierrefonds, Quebec, on April 23 and in Toronto on April 24.) The daunting program consisted of three big scores, each lasting half an hour or more. The concert opened with the Enigma Variations in a performance so ultra-romantic and calorie-rich that at times I found myself thinking Nézet-Séguin had returned to Montreal with the entire Philadelphia Orchestra in tow. Although OM’s numbers are slightly smaller than Philadelphia’s (strings number 14-12-10-8-6), the depth of sound it produces is extraordinary. The “Nimrod” variation glowed with embracing warmth, and the climax was so carefully prepared that it became a transcendent experience. In other variations, it was obvious on numerous occasions that this orchestra has truly mastered the art of playing softly.
Another young Montrealer, Stéphane Tétreault (still just 20), was soloist in the Cello Concerto. I last heard Tétreault a couple of years ago and was not impressed. He has now matured considerably, and there was no sign of labor in this performance. Perhaps taking his cue from Nézet-Séguin, he brought a highly romantic approach to his interpretation, though some of the gestures seemed just a bit overdone. The second movement was marked by scintillating clarity, and the third by richly nuanced dynamics.
The symphonies of Vaughan Williams are still terra incognita on this side of the Atlantic, even to seasoned concertgoers. So it was indeed welcome to find this composer’s Fourth Symphony on the program, especially as it is a veritable tour de force of orchestral virtuosity. Nézet-Séguin tore into the opening with a vengeance, immediately setting the tone for what was to follow. Taut rhythms, violent contrasts and textural clarity despite the dense orchestration marked this performance. Only the third movement, with its tricky rhythmic patterns and rampant syncopation, sounded as if it could have used one more rehearsal, but this was balanced by the masterful pacing of the slow movement and lovely solos from the bassoons and principal flute Marie-Andrée Benny, who ended the movement with a moment of magic, her golden sound fading slowly into nothingness. Nézet-Séguin looked immensely pleased with his orchestra at the end of the concert, as well he might. Together they have grown into formidable players on Canada’s classical music scene, and the future looks rosy as they approach their 16th season together, continue to record on the ATMA label (including a highly-acclaimed Bruckner cycle, www.atmaclassique.com), and serve their admiring and loyal audience base.
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 also writes regularly for such classical music journals as American Record Guide, Fanfare, Symphony, Strings, The Strad, Opera, Opera News and Opera Canada.