At Each New Hearing, Young Conductor’s Art, Promise Shine Brighter

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Dalia Stasevka conducting the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. (Photos by Antoine Saito)

MONTREAL – Dalia Stasevska: You might recognize the name from its convoluted association last September with the Last Night of the Proms and the controversy that followed the decision (eventually reversed) by the BBC to perform “Rule, Britannia!” and “Land of Hope and Glory” without their patriotic lyrics. It was assumed by some (well, several, to judge by online comment threads that this Ukrainian-born Finnish conductor — principal guest of the BBC Symphony — had instigated the apparent anti-imperialist crackdown. She issued a statement to the effect that she had not. The BBC, for its part, insisted that the no-chorus edict was connected solely to COVID-19 restrictions.

The denials and clarifications did little to calm the gathering storm. After none other than UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson expressed his dismay at the idea of a night of wordless anthems, an appropriately small and distanced choir was engaged to stand in the otherwise unoccupied stalls of the Royal Albert Hall and let Britannia rule the waves. Clutching my virtual Union Jack, I tuned into the webcast in a curmudgeonly mood. Dalia Stasevska indeed. Then my shoulders dropped. This was a good conductor.

We can raise that ante to very good in the wake of two performances with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, one of which is available online until May 11. Both concerts were recorded  in mid-March in the empty Maison symphonique before a relaxation of rules in Quebec’s “red zones” made small live audiences possible.

Stasevska showed a firm but flexible beat, integrated with the natural pulse of the music. Arms moved expansively to broaden the sonority or taper a melodic line. Wide-eyed facial expressions communicated a sense of wonderment at the sounds coming from the orchestra.

Of course, looking good is of no avail without audible results, which Stasevska delivered. Sibelius’ Third Symphony, the least loved of the seven, was a dynamic exercise in tension and release, its mysterious and extrovert elements given equal value. Pizzicati were precise in the first movement while the second movement drew attention to the conductor’s ability to make a subtle gesture seem decisive. If the chorale tune of the finale was undernourished — the spread-out orchestra numbered only 61 — the C major conclusion was still convincing.

The program began with Paradisfåglar II (Birds of Paradise II), an eight-minute aural aviary by the Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi, whose music, according to the program notes, was being heard in Canada for the first time. Rather like a birdwatcher’s outing, this evocative collection of cheeps, toots, and tremolos was more about the journey than arriving at any destination. A cymbal was used liberally to create a background drone. Crickets? 

Between Sibelius and Tarrodi came Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations with cellist Bryan Cheng, winner of the 2019 OSM Competition, as the jovial and baritonal soloist. The virtuoso elements of this showpiece should sound like fun, and so they did. Stasevska caught the courtly rhythm, even if the woodwind refrains were a tad raucous. 

The Montreal Symphony playing in socially distanced fashion under Dalia Stsevska

A concert featuring Shostakovich’s First Symphony (unfortunately no longer available to stream) was stronger, thanks to an orchestra comprising more principals and fewer stand-ins. (Former music director Kent Nagano left the OSM last year with many vacancies. His successor, Rafael Payare, does not start officially until 2022.) Again Stasevska impressed with her ability to make incisive points at modest volume. Not that fortissimos lacked anything in body. The irony and lyricism of this teenage masterpiece were both well represented. Andrei Malashenko showed how formidably melodic a timpani solo can be. 

The opener was Sibelius’s Finlandia. Coarse brass at the start did not much attenuate the positive overall impression. In the middle came Einojuhani Rautavaara’s evocative Harp Concerto of 2000 with Jennifer Swartz as soloist. This veteran principal knows how to bring out the articulate as well as sensuous qualities of her instrument. Oddly but not ineffectively, Rautavaara used two backup harps to fill out his modal harmonies. 

The Transmission video company adopted an itinerant filming style, generally favoring closeups over panoramas. Even if there was too much stress on this player or that, we knew who was in charge. Will Stasevska (who is 36) make a similar impression in a live setting? I await an opportunity to find out.

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