MONTREAL — The year just past has been a veritable Mahlerpalooza for Rafael Payare and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. The Venezuelan conductor began the 2022-23 season (his first as full-time music director) with four performances of the Second Symphony, one of which became an impressive limited-time webcast. There were four summer performances of the Fifth (one at the Lanaudière Festival and the others in South Korea) followed by two in Europe in October and two on a North American tour in March that included a self-promoted stop at Carnegie Hall. Goodness, there was even one in Montreal. A recording of the Fifth, made in August 2022, marked the orchestra’s first (and reportedly not the last) appearance on the Pentatone label.
To add to the Mahler madness, Payare closed the subscription season with three performances of the mighty Third, the first of which, on May 31, was filmed for the Symphony.live online video platform. It was a positive interpretation, full-throttle at climaxes, but animated by the natural musicality without which multiple-f fortissimos are of no avail. It still needs to be reported that at certain points I inserted my index fingers gently into my ears, not out of distaste for the sounds being produced but out of a simple instinct for self-preservation. Payare is an all-in kind of conductor, whose capacious gestures elicit sonority to match.
This might suggest a mismatch with an orchestra renowned since the days of Charles Dutoit for its tonal luster. Possibly the opposite logic applies. Since the OSM does not do ugly, it can accommodate a degree of extremism on the podium. With the approval, it might be noted, of an audience accustomed to the more analytical approach of Payare’s predecessor, Kent Nagano.
But back to the Third, the longest symphony in the standard repertoire and something of a collective audition for the 105 musicians assembled in the Maison symphonique. The principal trombone is always the first instrumentalist to get a bow, and James Box certainly earned his bravos with playing that was bold or lyrical according to need. Principal trumpet Paul Merkelo merited equal praise for his songful treatment (on a cornet) of the backstage post-horn solo in the third movement. Horns distinguished themselves in unison at the beginning and individually in the dizzying permutations Mahler puts them through. Notable among the woodwinds was the veteran flute Timothy Hutchins, as glowing as ever despite an extended pandemic absence.
Strings, if not weighty in the Central European manner, were burnished and agile. Timpani made bang-on sounds at the end. Vocal contributions were fine, from the luminous mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (positioned, not too advantageously, near the brass), the hearty women of the Choir de l’OSM (Andrew Megill, chorus master), and the dulcet boys of Les Petits Chanteurs de Mont-Royal (Andrew Gray). “Cheerful in tempo and cheeky in expression,” to quote Mahler’s indication at the head of the fifth movement.
Of course, observing Mahler’s detailed instructions is half the battle won in this symphony. Payare managed to add his own extrovert stamp, with martial determination in the first movement (including a few traces of roughness) and ribald playfulness in the third. Often palming his baton and letting his hands float at shoulder level, the 43-year-old found a fine balance of legato curvature and forward motion in the great finale. “What love tells me,” as Mahler puts it.
Would a little less volume at climaxes have, paradoxically, given greater satisfaction? Perhaps being seated relatively close to the stage — Row J in the parterre — was part of the problem. A good place to hear Eine kleine Nachtmusik, to be sure!
These concerts marked the retirement of six musicians, including the distinguished principal oboe Theodore Baskin, a veteran of 43 years. Wednesday was dedicated to the memory of OSM board member Barbara Bronfman (1938-2021).