Montreal Looking. Conductor Arrives, Ready But Rough

François-Xavier Roth conducted the Montreal Symphony in works by Beethoven, Bartok, and Strauss.
(Photos by Antoine Saito)

MONTREAL – The race to succeed Kent Nagano as music director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (his last month is August 2020) has attracted only a few clear candidates. One is François-Xavier Roth, 47, a Frenchman whose résumé includes the mandatory language skills, the directorship at the Cologne Opera, musical DNA from his father (organist Daniel Roth), an up-to-date fondness for period practice, a discography rich in the French repertoire for which the MSO is famed, and a touch of nonconformism that should prove helpful in an anti-classical age.

A program profile of Roth includes what I presume is the first ever reference in an MSO publication to Kool and the Gang. Apparently, the young François-Xavier had an album by this band in his collection of recordings.

Jolly good, all of this. But can Roth pull together a big program in a manner that respects the distinctive sonority of the orchestra? Not all the answers I heard in the Maison Symphonique on Oct. 31 were affirmative.

François-Xavier Roth

To be sure, Strauss’ Ein Heldenleben lacked nothing in brawn. The vaulting theme of the opening could be heard clearly through the steady fortissimo blaze. But another word for steady is monotonous, and it was a little discouraging, particularly for a critic who is supposed to take it personally, to hear “The Hero’s Adversaries” speaking their fatuities so loudly when pretension to subtle intellect was part of Strauss’ point.

There was lyrical respite in “The Hero’s Companion,” as the sinuous violin solos of concertmaster Andrew Wan both fended off and provoked the bearlike surges of the orchestra. Equally evocative were the exchanges of violin and horn near the end of “The Hero’s Retreat from the World.” Yet it must be said that the swelling brass chorale of the final page did not have the handsome glow of the MSO of old. The traditional Montreal formula is to combine force with finesse. Roth’s approach was more rough and ready.

Such was also the impression before the break in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with Pierre-Laurent Aimard in the solo role. This is a feisty score with plenty of percussion, but also hidden colors for those who care to seek them. What we heard was a free-for-all, lacking even the advantage of a stimulating lead performance. Rather than the stark beauty that characterizes a sympathetic view of Bartók, Aimard gave us a low-definition run-through. The positioning of the timpani and side drums on opposite sides of the piano was nothing more than a distraction.

Opening the concert was Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, with crackling old-fashioned timpani making themselves heard distinctly in the (slightly ragged) opening note. Interim associate flute Albert Brouwer gave us a sweetly upbeat solo, but Roth’s outlook on this masterpiece was essentially muscular.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard was soloist in Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Using the score throughout and no baton, the conductor seemed every inch a serious practitioner of his craft. His nonstop caressing of the air, however, was not interesting to watch. Audience reaction to the Strauss was a moderately noisy standing ovation, the 2019 equivalent of polite applause. Beethoven barely got a curtain call. The orchestra, after Strauss, at one point refused Roth’s signal to rise. This classic gesture of high praise is decided on, of course, by the concertmaster, who in this case is a member of the selection committee seeking a new conductor. All very interesting. Convincing? Maybe next time.

Arthur Kaptainis writes about music for the Montreal Gazette and La Scena Musicale.