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A mixed bag of old and new with the Montréal Symphony October 10, 2010

Posted by Alan Yu in Classical, Music.
Tags: , , , ,

The last time I was in the Salle de Wilfred-Pelletier in the Place des Arts, Montréal, I sat underneath the balcony which extends almost halfway into the hall.  The acoustics was so restrictive that I found it hard to concentrate on the music being played.

Fortunately, on October 3rd, I sat on the balcony itself.  Under the baton of music director Kent Nagano, the Montréal Symphony Orchestra opened the evening with Sur le même accord, nocturne for violin and orchestra, by contemporary French composer Henri Dutilleux.  The expansiveness and resonance of the acoustics, by contrast, was refreshing.

Sur le même accord is a mood piece, with the solo violin gliding smoothly over the orchestral accompaniment, much like a skater on ice.  Although the work is dedicated to the soloist of the evening, Anne-Sophie Mutter, the solo part does not seem that demanding of virtuosity, perhaps leaving Mutter little opportunity to showcase her technical mastery of the instrument.  Nevertheless, soloist and orchestra worked well together to present the relaxed tone of a walk in the park.

The second work on the programme, the violin concerto In tempus Praesens by Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina is no doubt a work of extreme intensity, well developed intellectuality and a tour de force of tonal, melodic, harmonic, temporal and rhythmic exploration.  Compared with Sur le même accord, it also offers Mutter a great deal of room for showing off her technical prowess.

Gulbaidulina’s concerto is a trek through the Siberian wasteland in the depth of winter.  The absence of the violins in the orchestra heightens the tension between it and the soloist – a tension the programme notes characterise as that between “the ‘good’ and ‘evil’ of a Dostoevskian Russia”.  The wailing first notes soon progress to a rhythm much like the trotting of a horse, with the undulating strings leading to a climax accentuated by loud percussion.

The value of the concerto may be high as a didactic exploration of the esoteric aspects of composition, but in the concert hall it is somewhat a misfit.  Its idiom is arcane, and its structure obscure.  Nevertheless, the performance received a standing ovation, reaffirming my depressing suspicion that I was the only obtuse one in the crowd.

The worldliness of Mahler came to the rescue in the second half of the programme.  Although his fifth symphony has a feeling of optimism overall, it opens with a funeral march.  Despite intermittent moments of hope and triumph, the opening trumpet call keeps returning to remind us of the menace of death.  Although the tone of the orchestra was somewhat diffuse, it handled the contrasting moods well.

The brass and shivering strings of the second movement, at first delivering a sense of shock and anguish, soon gives way to idyllic passages in the winds, presaging the unbridled romanticism of Erich Korngold and Hollywood epics such as Gone With the Wind.  Under Nagano, the Montréal Symphony’s tone was confident and forceful.  Its handling of the contrasts and mood swings was skilful.


The orchestra’s real mastery of the subject matter was most obvious in delivering the humour and irony in the scherzo.  Opening with a light dance tune, the horns and winds pave the way to an elegant waltz, with glimpses of darkness and nostalgia emerging in the bassoon.  The return of the waltz is short-lived, rapidly degenerating into horror, almost like terrorists breaking up a party.

The use of the adagietto in Visconti’s movie Death in Venice has perhaps unjustly flouted it as the personification of decadence.  According to Norman Lebrecht in Why Mahler, it is “about love and the renunciation of love…in which the same few notes convey love and loss, commitment and retraction…”  Thus, says Lebrecht, “the meaning depends how it is performed, how a conductor shapes and stretches the movement”.

It is here, perhaps, Nagano shows his weakness most.  His detached and controlled style did not quite bring out the wistfulness of the movement.  Under him, the sequence of notes stayed as it was – a sequence of notes – rather than an emotionally-charged melodic idea.

As a conductor, Kent Nagano is down-to-earth, matter-of-fact, and effective.  His performances are orderly, measured and even-tempered.  This is perhaps why he excelled in Dutilleux and Gubaidulina, but fell somewhat short in Mahler.