By Arthur Kaptainis
MONTREAL — These are tough psychological times for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble that will be identified in perpetuity with the now-notorious Charles Dutoit, who occupied the podium from 1977 to 2002. On Feb. 14, the players — including many veterans of the Dutoit era — demonstrated that they are able to put the distractions aside for the sake of the conductor destined to be the second-longest-serving MSO music director, Kent Nagano, who started in 2006 and leaves in 2020.
The curiosity on the program was the Double Bass Concerto of Behzad Ranjbaran, a Tehran-born theory professor at the Juilliard School whose works have been premiered by Joshua Bell, Renée Fleming, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. This commission came not from the MSO but from its principal double bass, Ali Kian Yazdanfar, who is also of Iranian descent.
Like many of Ranjbaran’s scores, this 26-minute outing is rooted in Persian culture, specifically a poem (“Veil”) by the 14th-century mystic Hafez. Each of the three movements has a subtitle. The overall orchestral texture, however, more often struck this listener as generically colorful rather than reflective of the character of each movement.
The entry of the soloist in high position was promising, distinctly in cello range but reedier and more alien. Alas, the mostly step-wise cantabile line did not sustain interest. Within minutes, the illicit thought arose: Would this music not be better served by a cello? There were few traces of the low-register amplitude that gives the double bass its identity and authority. Pizzicati were strangely lacking.
The orchestra was large, as the occasional brazen tutti made us aware. Seldom, however, did a truly conversational dynamic emerge. Perhaps, in the 21st century, the English horn is best avoided in music intended to evoke faraway lands.
The harmonic idiom was accessible and the layout easy to comprehend. Material from the first two movements returned in the finale. Yazdanfar played everything with firm tone and steady vibrato, while Nagano and the MSO supported their colleague admirably. I wish I could predict a great future for the piece. But let it be noted that the audience defied my skepticism with a hearty ovation.
They were grateful also for Mahler’s First Symphony, lyrically easygoing in the first movement and properly galumphing in the scherzo. In the slow movement, one sensed more personal involvement by Nagano, who managed the build-up from quiet beginnings to magical effect (and with minimal gestures). Marching band elements were fascinating precisely because they were not overdone. Associate principal double bass Brian Robinson made a warmly somber thing of the inaugural “Frère Jacques” theme. (Yazdanfar, understandably, had been given the rest of the night off.)
There was plenty of strife and heroism in the finale, where observance of Mahler’s frequent instructions not to hurry paid dividends. A few fortissimos sounded strident, notwithstanding the presence of the MSO’s octobass, a replica of the giant French specimen of 1851 that is positioned behind the double basses and offers subwoofer support to certain sustained notes. No one has yet proposed a concerto for this unwieldy instrument!
This concert in the packed-to-the-rafters Maison symphonique began with the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin. We tend to equate Wagner’s evocation of the Holy Grail with shimmering light; Nagano found its dramatic arc.
Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and Musical Toronto.