MONTREAL – Before the pandemic struck early in 2020, the 45-year-old French-Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was a man in perpetual motion. He was music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as the Metropolitan Opera. It wasn’t a long haul beween Philadelphia and New York, but he was also a regular guest conductor with the Berlin Philharmonic, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. Nézet-Séguin was also a man who never forgot his roots and remained loyal to the orchestra that gave him his start: Montreal’s “second” orchestra, the Orchestre Metropolitain (OM). No matter how busy his schedule, the conductor always blocked out big chunks for his beloved OM.
During the pandemic, home base has once again been Montreal, and with the OM Nézet-Séguin has even managed to resume giving concerts with live audiences. Last week, I had the pleasure of attending one such concert, and while it was a treat just to hear an orchestra live once again, the concert also offered a genuine rarity: Nézet-Séguin himself as piano soloist.
Montreal is currently under severe constraints due to COVID-19, and the first night of a newly imposed 8 p.m. curfew, April 11, there were serious disturbances in the city with fires started, store windows broken, and numerous arrests. But the Orchestre Métropolitain was allowed to go ahead with its live concert at Maison symphonique, which seats about 2,000 people, before a limited audience. The 250 who were allowed to attend were required to wear masks and were carefully seated several seats away from their neighbors. Some members of the orchestra wore masks, too, and were seated at some distance from each other. Nézet-Séguin wore a mask and only removed it when he was seated at the piano or standing on the podium.
And there was a further complication. After most patrons had bought their tickets, the Quebec government decided that it wasn’t enough for audience members to be 1.5 meters apart; the new standard was now 2 meters. This meant that Orchestre Métropolitain staff had to get out their tape measures and recalculate where people could sit. Many attendees arrived to be told that their seat numbers would have to be changed to accommodate the new regulations.
It is well known that Nézet-Séguin is an excellent pianist, and just recently he accompanied soprano Joyce DiDonato in a series of performances of Schubert’s Winterreise. But at this concert he was making his debut as a soloist with orchestra. Is this the beginning of a whole new career for the superstar conductor? Probably not. Nézet-Séguin is undoubtedly enormously gifted; just don’t expect him to appear in the near future playing Rachmaninoff 3 or Prokofiev 2. But for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 in A, K. 414, he was a nearly ideal soloist. This is a concerto that makes no virtuoso demands on the soloist but requires grace, subtlety, playfulness, and a chamber music-like camaraderie with the members of the small orchestra.
And Nézet-Séguin at the keyboard is just your man for this kind of music. Tempos were on the slow side but suited the character of the work. The pianist’s tempo for the slow movement Andante might have been too leisurely for some Mozartians, but again the music could and did take it very well. At Nézet-Séguin’s near Adagio tempo, the score revealed depths of feeling not even hinted at in many interpretations. Throughout the performance, members of the Orchestre Metropolitain matched their leader’s elegance and delicacy at every turn.
In classical concertos, and often in Mozart, there are opportunities for the soloist to display his or her technical skills, especially in the first-movement cadenza. But not so much in this concerto. Admittedly, Nézet-Séguin gave us one of the briefest cadenzas one is ever likely to hear, but it fit his conception of the piece. On the whole, this was wonderful Mozart, and a welcome opportunity to hear the ever-surprising Nézet-Séguin as a solo pianist.
And there is more to come from Nézet-Séguin as piano soloist. Early in June, Deutsche Grammophon will be releasing a CD titled Introspection: Solo Piano Sessions (DG 289 48606184), with him playing music by Debussy, Brahms, Scarlatti, and many others. Apparently, with unexpected time on his hands with because of dozens of conducting engagements canceled, Nézet-Séguin turned his attention to brushing up his piano chops and exploring the solo repertoire.
The conductor and the OM are currently working their way through a Brahms symphony cycle. On this occasion, it was the Third Symphony. Under pandemic conditions, most orchestras are practicing social distancing onstage, and this often means that they are unable to find enough room for all their players. For this reason programming generally leans to works requiring fewer players – Mahler and Richard Strauss are usually out of the question – or to versions of pieces that can still sound well with smaller ensembles. The Brahms symphonies are interesting cases in this context.
While the Third Symphony was first performed in 1883 by the Vienna Philharmonic, presumably at full strength, Brahms himself frequently expressed admiration for performances of his works by the Meiningen Court Orchestra using only 45-50 players. In non-pandemic times, Nézet-Séguin has frequently conducted the Brahms symphonies in Rotterdam, Philadelphia, and elsewhere with robust string sections and an orchestra totaling about 75-80 players. But if I am not mistaken, he has also conducted Brahms with the much smaller Chamber Orchestra of Europe.
Making a virtue of necessity, Nézet-Séguin opted for the Meiningen Court Orchestra size for his Brahms Third. In practice, this meant reducing the number of players in each of the string sections. Perhaps another historical reference might be in order here: For the premiere of Brahms First Symphony in Karlsruhe, there were 49 players, and the strings included nine first violins, nine second violins, four violas, four cellos, and four basses. Doubtlessly, Nézet-Séguin has given a lot of thought to such matters, and prior to the streaming of the Symphony No. 1 in the current cycle, he offered his opinion that the Brahms symphonies need to be somewhat bass-heavy to be properly performed. In all the performances so far in the current cycle, there have been at least 6 basses.
So what we heard April 11 was a performance of the Brahms Third with a rather light complement of strings – except for the basses – and it was finely detailed, often breathtakingly beautiful, and at climactic moments as exciting as one could wish. With a smaller string section the brass can be overpowering. But there was only one moment, toward the end of the first movement, where I felt the brass – trumpets in particular – sounded a little raw. Elsewhere, Nézet-Séguin and the OM sounded as they nearly always do together, tightly rehearsed and intensely focused.
The second and third movements were compelling from beginning to end. Nézet-Séguin found exactly the right tempos, dynamics were precisely observed, and every color in the orchestration was ideally realized. And those extra basses added just the right amount of very musical weight.
Both conductor and players got a little carried away in the final movement, but that is often a good thing. And so it was here. The symphony contains many moments of Brahms at his most autumnal, but he was a man of passion, too, and there is plenty of it in the last movement before the composer draws the music to a close with wistfulness and serenity.
For the record, the concert opened with a rather inconsequential four-minute piece by the 40-year-old Venezuelan composer Giancarlo Castro D’Adonna. The composer trained in the El Sistema program in his native country and for a time was principal trumpet in the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra. We heard his piece called Diversity in a version for brass, a stereotypical Latin piece that would have been more suitable for a dance band. But it was entertaining music and very well played by the OM brass players.
In short, a great concert and one that was especially welcome in these trying times. The concert will be available for streaming on the orchestra’s website starting on April 30.
An earlier version of this review appeared first in La Scena Musical.