In Golden Homecoming, Chopin Winner Scores Again As Keyboard Hero

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Bruce Liu performed Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Orchestre symphonique de Montréal under Rafael Payare. (Photos by Antoine Saito)

MONTREAL — Summertime music in and around Montreal is substantially an al fresco phenomenon, as both the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal and its archrival, the Orchestre Métropolitain, attract tens of thousands of picnickers to parks and outdoor amphitheaters. But every August (pandemics permitting!), the OSM pulls the action back indoors for a few days with a concentrated array of chamber and orchestral programs called the Virée classique (or somewhat less convincingly in English, the Classical Spree).

Concerts generally last about an hour and are priced to sell. Free events and demonstrations by luthiers and other instrument builders help to create a festive atmosphere in the concourse of the Place des Arts complex. While some emphasis is placed on performers from the orchestra itself, there are plenty of extramural headliners. Last weekend, the guests included soprano Jeanine De Bique, violinist James Ehnes, and pianist Sergio Tiempo in programs led by OSM music director Rafael Payare.

A special case was Bruce Liu, the 25-year-old Paris-born Montrealer who last October won gold in the 18th International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw. His appearance Aug. 13 in the Maison symphonique was the first with the OSM since that victory — indeed the first under the aegis of the orchestra since 2013, the year after he won (as Xiaoyu Liu) the OSM Standard Life Competition, since renamed the OSM Competition.

Not surprisingly, Liu faced a packed house and received a hero’s welcome. One supposes any competent performance of Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini would have been gratefully applauded. As it happened, Liu gave a splendid one, brilliant in filigree, sonorous in the solemn iterations of the Dies irae theme, and suitably contoured where Rachmaninoff gives the orchestra more to say than the soloist.

A bow for Bruce Liu.

The famous 18th variation was a marvel of tender tone and well-judged interplay of bass, treble, and in-between. Familiar as this moonlit music is, it sounded fresh. We did not need to watch the pianist to know that he felt deeply about what he was doing. All the same, Liu’s natural facial expressions offered a subtle enhancement. He really is the complete performer. Chopin’s Etude Op. 10, No. 5 (“Black Keys”), was the scintillating encore.

Payare elicited colorful comment from the players. In the concert’s opening and closing selections, he pretty much let them rip. The aggressive and syncopated pulsing of R. Murray Schafer’s nine-minute Scorpius might have made an original impression in 1990, but today it sounds noisy and dated. There are sharper arrows in the quiver of this distinguished Canadian composer, who died last August. Nor was there much to admire in Villa-Lobos’ garrulous and heavily orchestrated Bachianas brasileiras No. 7. Best of its four movements was the concluding Fuga, starting with the cellos and growing steadily to a climax that proved appropriately reminiscent of Leopold Stokowski’s lavish Bach arrangements.

Music director Rafael Payare in action.

An afternoon concert Aug. 13 offered a similarly varied program by the Ensemble Obiora, a young Montreal-based chamber orchestra with a trilingual website (English, French, and Spanish) and a stated dedication to the “3D principles” of “diversity, discovery and dissemination.” The nimble group made a supple and textured sound in the Lento of Dvořák’s String Quartet, Op. 96 (American). It was interesting to hear this overplayed piece in expanded form. Payare’s descriptive conducting added another refreshing touch.

As the guest list and repertoire might suggest, the overriding theme of the 2022 Classical Spree was the Americas — Payare himself being Venezuelan and Rachmaninoff perhaps counting as at least partly American by 1934, when the Rhapsody was written. Ehnes on Aug. 12 played the Korngold Violin Concerto of 1945. (Both composers became American citizens in 1943.)

The program also included Villa-Lobos’ tartly neoclassical Fantasia for Saxophone (1948) with the articulate American Steven Banks on a gleaming soprano instrument. Payare (evidently a quick study) led this as well. The Obiora players went it alone in George Walker’s Lyric for Strings, a 1990 expansion of the slow movement of the 1946 String Quartet No. 1 that bears comparison with a piece with a similar genesis — Barber’s Adagio for Strings. The performance was exquisite.