Mega Flourish Of Horns Lifts ‘Alpine Symphony’ At Canadian Music Fest

Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes a bow after conducting Orchestre Métropolitain in Strauss’ ‘An Alpine Symphony’ at the Festival de Lanaudière. (Photos by Annie Bigras, Agence BigJaw)

JOLIETTE, Quebec — “The Tanglewood of the North” is a phrase often used to describe the Festival de Lanaudière, Canada’s largest classical summer music festival. Nestled in Quebec’s picturesque Lanaudière region, the Fernand-Lindsay Amphitheatre is located about an hour’s drive northeast of Montreal, just outside the pretty little town of Joliette. As a venue for main attractions, the Amphitheatre consists of a fan-shaped shed seating nearly 2,000, open at the sides and fronting an expansive green lawn where thousands more can bring their chairs, blankets, and picnics to enjoy music on warm summer evenings in the lingering northern twilight.

But not even the renowned Tanglewood to the south in Massachusetts has probably ever seen a concert like the one given on July 28 by Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain (OM), conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin: a program consisting of Strauss’ monumental An Alpine Symphony with Schumann’s Konzertstück for four horns and orchestra as a sort of “prelude.” Horn players will immediately recognize that a program like this is extremely unlikely to occur. The Konzertstück is murderously difficult, and its soloists would in most cases be loath to return to the stage after intermission to play another enormously challenging work like the 50-minute Alpine Symphony. Yet these four did. Well, sort of.

Largely responsible for this hornists’ nest was the OM’s principal horn player, Louis-Philippe Marsolais, who also served as local host for the International Horn Society’s 55th annual Symposium being held in Montreal during the last week of July. These Symposia regularly attract hundreds of horn players from around the world, including many stars of the profession. Why not take advantage of their presence and build an orchestral program around them? Concurrently, Marsolais discovered a small hole in Nézet-Séguin’s insanely busy schedule that allowed him to be in town at the same time as the horn symposium, and voila!, the almost unimaginable program of July 28 sprang into being.

Nézet-Séguin conducting Schumann’s ‘Konzertstück’ for four horns and orchestra with players from the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Staatskapelle, and Orchestre Métropolitain

The solo parts in Schumann’s Konzertstück are of such difficulty as to require the equivalent of four first-chair soloists, and that’s pretty much what we got. In addition to Marsolais, they included Stefan Dohr (principal in the Berlin Philharmonic), Yun Zeng (principal in the Berlin Staatskapelle, a position he won at the age of 23), and Sarah Willis (fourth horn in the Berlin Philharmonic but also a “first” in that she is the first woman to hold a position in that orchestra’s brass section). It should have been a stellar performance, but such was not the case. Fast and furious were the keynotes, accompanied by rhythmic sloppiness, intonation issues, lack of finesse, and orchestral support that was often so loud as to obscure much of the detail in the solo writing.

Normally, the Schumann soloists would go home after taking their bows. Not these four. Marsolais returned to play fifth horn (and first Wagner tuba) in the Alpine Symphony, while Dohr, Zeng, and Willis joined in the offstage ensemble for which Strauss requests (but rarely gets) 12 additional horns to evoke the sound of a hunting party in the distance. As there were so many horn players in the area anyway, this ensemble was enlarged to 16 (possibly a first anywhere), who made their contribution just beside the Amphitheatre. The distancing effect was lost on those sitting nearby, but it was hugely impressive nonetheless, and the playing was immaculate — as clean and well articulated as I’ve ever heard this passage rendered.

Nézet-Séguin basking in Straussian splendor on high

Publicity for the concert proclaimed that there would be 120-plus musicians on stage. The OM string sections were expanded to 18 first violins, 16 seconds, 12 violas, 10 cellos, and eight basses. Every woodwind, brass, and percussion instrument in the score was represented, including heckelphone, contrabass trombone, cowbells, wind machine, and a fearsome thunder sheet.

Unlike the Konzertstück, the Alpine Symphony was obviously prepared with great care. Seldom have I heard this work played with such attention to sheer beauty of sound (as opposed to the forceful displays of orchestral virtuosity often heard elsewhere). There were countless moments of lovingly shaped phrases, an abundance of detail (especially among the woodwinds), and clarity of texture throughout.

Overall, one sensed that the dedication and commitment of every musician emanated from supreme confidence inspired by their leader. Nézet-Séguin masterfully paced the work, alternating moments of tension and urgency with those of peace and calm. The storm episode that night was unquestionably one of the most frightening ever conjured up by any orchestra, the result perhaps of a real rainstorm that had swept through with unbridled fury just two hours earlier. Special mention must go to principal oboe Kirsten Zander, clarinet Simon Aldrich, and horn Corine Chartré-Lefebvre for the many felicitous moments they provided.

The justly deserved roaring ovation that followed lasted nearly 10 minutes. In the course of acknowledging the contribution from each section of the orchestra, Nézet-Séguin brought on the offstage horn ensemble, which paraded across the front of the stage like a small army, proudly brandishing their brass “weapons” in the air. The audience loved it — a fitting end to a memorable musical cornucopia.