By Earl Arthur Love
MONTREAL — After slamming the door on the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal in 2002, Charles Dutoit returned for the first time to conduct two concerts Feb. 18 and 20 — not under the auspices of the OSM, but as part of the winter arts festival Montréal en lumière (Montreal in Lights). This was also the first time Dutoit conducted in the Maison symphonique at Montreal’s Place des Arts.
His appearance was due to the efforts of personal friends Lucien Bouchard, former premier of Quebec and chairman of the OSM, and Alain Simard, founding president emeritus and chairman of the board of L’Équipe Spectra Inc. (organizers of Montréal en Lumière), who finally persuaded Dutoit to return to Montreal.
Dutoit had spent many years lobbying for a dedicated hall for the OSM, but his efforts came to fruition only during the tenure of his successor, Kent Nagano. (The Maison symphonique opened in September 2011.) With 33 tours and more than 80 CDs, Dutoit was renowned for putting the OSM on the international map during his tenure as music director (1978-2002). He resigned in a fury shortly after receiving an official complaint from the Quebec Musicians Guild alleging his increasingly autocratic and disrespectful behavior. Dutoit did make one return appearance in Quebec, though not in Montreal, during the summer of 2011, when he led a concert by the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Festival de Lanaudière, an hour’s drive northeast of the city.
During the concert of Feb. 18, however, the smiles and welcome from orchestra members belied any quarrels they may have had in the past. Of the 66 current members who played under Dutoit’s reign, several excused themselves from optional participation in this highly anticipated reunion. A total of 98 musicians played in the two concerts. [The live performance can be seen on Medici.tv until May 18.]
The auspicious program included some hits from the OSM’s glory years, and Dutoit even invited one of his ex-wives as guest artist, pianist Martha Argerich, who was the first soloist he conducted professionally way back in — are you ready? — January 1959. She also traveled with the orchestra on its first European tour. The big question, of course, was this: Could Dutoit and the OSM recreate the resplendent sound of their collaborations from the 1980s and 1990s?
The first two works failed to ignite. One of the most brilliant of concert overtures, Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival, cribbed from the love duet and carnival scene of his early, unappreciated opera Benvenuto Cellini, didn’t rise to the mark. Despite the haunting solo at the beginning from the English horn player, Pierre-Vincent Plante, a lack of tension, ragged playing from the brass, and an overall dearth of confidence generated a pedestrian performance.
Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1 received an even more perfunctory reading and seemed to be under-rehearsed. The orchestral sound was muddy and marred by a booming sensation from the strings, which is often the case when classical composers, particularly Mozart and Beethoven, are played in this hall. In the outer movements, Argerich, despite her fabulous technique and experience, played with colorless tone and little expression, let alone sense of poetry. The Adagio showed some subtlety and nuance, but it dragged after a while and, again, Argerich didn’t sustain much interest. The orchestral accompaniment was timid, uneven, and overly restrained to the point of indifference. As an encore Argerich tossed off Scarlatti’s Sonata K. 141 in D minor — very well executed.
The real excitement was generated during the second half of the concert. It was as if a different orchestra had taken to the stage. Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (the original 1911 version), one of the orchestra’s signature works under Dutoit (listen to their 1987 recording on Decca), is one showpiece that allows a full orchestra to flaunt its skills. At this they excelled. The performance had drive, a pulsing beat, and confidence, and Dutoit maintained good balance and tight control throughout. Highlights included masterful solos by one of the OSM’s stars, flutist Timothy Hutchins, as well as his poignant duet with piano in “Petrushka’s Curses”; a sizzling brass section; and, despite a few flubbed notes, tight, solidly pitched work from the solo trumpet, Paul Merkelo. The trombones were excellent throughout the concert. Dutoit brought a rhythmic drive to the “Dance with the Coachman’s Grooms” and a sad stillness to Petrouchka’s death.
Ravel’s La Valse, which followed, was even more thrilling. Sculpted with precision and finesse, the first half evoked the true Viennese spirit of the epoch, and the strings (especially the violins) dug in as if their lives depended on it. Rarely does one hear such a combination of silken sheen and heartfelt depth. The grand sweep and churn of the second part, with its expanding and contracting crescendos and decrescendos, string glissandos, and piercing trumpet calls whipped the audience into a frenzy. Dutoit will be 80 this year, but one would be hard pressed to believe it given his energy, the range of his conducting style, and his meticulous attention to all aspects of the orchestra.
As an encore, the orchestra offered another work associated with Dutoit’s tenure: Ravel’s Bolero. A 16-minute essay, mind you, but they had the good sense to begin halfway through. The standing ovation was long and thunderous — a well-deserved tribute to the enduring relationship between Dutoit and the OSM.
The festival (http://montrealenlumiere.com) runs until March 5.
Earl Love is the Montreal correspondent for www.concertonet.com and a feature writer for American Record Guide. Formerly, he wrote for Opera Canada while working as a speechwriter for the Government of Canada in Ottawa.