Singular Sonorities In Four New Works Get Big Bass Boost

Kent Nagano's Montreal Symphony Orchestra has a new instrument - the octobass. (Antoine Saito, OSM)
Providing a subwoofer-like boost for the Montreal Symphony is the three-stringed octobass, nearly twelve feet tall.
(Concert photos by Antoine Saito)
By Arthur Kaptainis

MONTREAL  —  Well into the 21st century, new works for orchestra are usually preludes to (or interruptions of) programs firmly grounded in the standard repertoire. Music director Kent Nagano and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra managed to reverse the formula Oct. 19 and 20 with concerts in which the premieres generated the buzz.

The central concept on Oct. 20 was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Montreal Metro. Essential to urban operations for the usual reasons, this subway system might have a little more cachet among the citizenry by virtue of its association with Expo 67, the world’s fair that drew international attention to the city, and its remarkable use of rubber tires, which makes the underground experience much less noisy than it is in New York or Boston. The concert is available for viewing on until Jan. 22, 2017.

The octobass increases the orchestra’s resonance in the bottommost range.

Another novelty of the concert was the presence of an octobass, a super-sized string instrument recently purchased by the MSO. Positioned behind the double basses and measuring two inches less than 12 feet in height, the three-stringed curiosity (reputed to be the only fully functional example of its type) looked like something out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Though clearly not equal to rapidly articulated music, the octobass created an interesting subwoofer resonance in the new works. I am not sure it added much more than visual reinforcement to the strong beats in Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben.

José Evangelista
José Evangelista

But back to the Montreal Metro and what I fear is the thankless task of turning rolling stock into memorable music. Whatever the true genesis of Arthur Honegger’s Pacific 231, this 1923 paean to the industrial age is more written about than performed. A similar fate likely awaits José Evangelista’s Accelerando, a work that began in murky Das Rheingold mode, introduced an ostinato figure at the three-minute mark, increased pace according to a formula mentioned in the program notes, and ended unceremoniously about four minutes before its advertised length of 15 minutes. Polite applause ensued. If a subway journey can be described as an everyday experience, this emeritus Université de Montréal composition professor (and resident of Montreal since 1970) captured its ethos perfectly.

Robert Normandeau

After intermission we heard Tunnel Azur by Robert Normandeau, a veteran electroacoustic composer also linked to the U de M. Here was a rare case of music presented by an orchestra but involving no standard orchestral instruments. Sounds undulated around the darkened Maison symphonique without much purpose. There were a few anachronistic chugging steam-engine sounds and traces (as there were in the Evangelista) of the rising open intervals known to all metro users as the signal that the doors are closing. I was relatively isolated in my skepticism: There was a substantial ovation. It should be noted that Tunnel Azur, though commissioned by the MSO, was first heard outdoors in August. Azur is the name of a new train introduced early in 2016.

Truls Mørk performed the Schumann Cello concerto.
Truls Mørk performed the Schumann Cello concerto.

A few dignitaries were present for this concert, which included two items that could easily have been perceived as the musical anchors. Truls Mørk did not completely avoid the entropy that lurks as a danger in the nicht zu schnell first movement of Schumann’s Cello Concerto, but his warm sound and heartfelt phrasing made the slow movement an absorbing thing. After a somewhat generic opening, Ein Heldenleben came to life with spot-on wind playing in the “Hero’s Adversaries” sequence. Strings were ravishing in the final minutes. Nagano clearly identifies with Strauss in autobiographical mode. Concertmaster Andrew Wan portrayed the “Hero’s Companion” with sympathy, perception, and sweet tone.

This was the second of two nights of premieres for the MSO. On Oct. 19 Nagano and the orchestra participated in the inaugural concert of the Azrieli Music Project, a Montreal undertaking that offered a $50,000 commission (open to Canadians) and $50,000 prize (open to existing works from around the world) for Jewish music. (Those Canadian dollars are worth about $37,000 USD per prize.)

Just what qualifies as Jewish music is an intriguing question. The simpler and more pressing issue in the Maison symphonique was whether the victorious scores were worthy as concert pieces pure and simple. Happily, they were, although a few footnotes apply. [See video clips at the bottom of this story.]

Brian Current
Brian Current

The commission win was for The Seven Heavenly Halls, a half-hour cantata by the Toronto-based (and non-Jewish) composer Brian Current on words from the Zohar, a mystical text of the Kabbalah tradition. “The enlightened will shine like the splendor of the sky,” were the opening words, which only those listeners equipped with the text (there seemed to be only a few copies in circulation) were likely to unravel.

Solo vocal lines were more comprehensible, especially as delivered by Frédéric Antoun, a tenor of clear tone, ardent projection, and impeccable English. This was a big sing, as the saying goes, but it must be acknowledged that he was formidably amplified. I suspect his lyric instrument would have been engulfed without the electronics. The same might be said of the 33 voices in the choir as prepared by Andrew Megill. Possibly Current had more Mahlerian forces in mind.

Nevertheless, there were stirring climaxes in this piece, which is intended to express a sequence of ecstatic states. Harmonic movement was often traditional, even if the composer was careful to add dissonant embellishment and orchestral color to create a proper otherworldly effect. We could have done with more down time: the prevailing dynamic seemed to be fortissimo. But the entirety had an epic, biblical sound. Nagano, conducting without baton, seemed to be into it.

Wlad Marhulets
Wlad Marhulets

Later we heard Concerto for Klezmer Clarinet (2009) by the Polish composer Wlad Marhulets (who claims Jewish ancestry on his father’s side). Notes were abundant in the outer movements. Both referenced big-city lights as much as they did the Klezmer tradition. Think of An American in Paris with more traffic (and less melodic flair).

The best music was in the middle movement, where the clarinet played in a quiet improvisatory style. Many were the stuttering repeated notes. A cinematic second theme for strings offered a welcome contrast. The performance by André Moisan, an MSO player, was at the highest level of enthusiasm and virtuosity.

Repertoire fillers for this evening were the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony (impressive if heavy as Nagano led it) and Part 2 of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2 (The Age of Anxiety). Nagano captured the richness and spontaneity of this personal music. Pianist Serhiy Salov made gold of every note.

Soprano Sharon Azrieli, daughter to the late architect and developer David Azrieli and the moving force behind the Azrieli Music Project, sang two of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder (“Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” and “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft”) with a combination of ringing sonority and wide-eyed innocence.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.