On the eve of a four-city Tournée Américaine (with stops in Chicago, Ann Arbor, New York and Philadelphia) it was instructive to hear and see the current state of the art of Orchestre Métropolitain, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Maison symphonique de Montréal.
This inventive program balanced classical and romantic styles. The first half consisting of three highlights form Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (Overture, Arias: Parto, parto, ma tu ben mia; Non più di fiori—the latter two featuring lyric mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and OM principal clarinet, Simon Aldrich), followed by Bruckner’s mighty Symphony No. 4 “Romantic.”
For me, the highlight was the hall. Jack Diamond (in the tradition of Jean Nouvel for Lucerne’s magnificent Cultural and Congress Centre—cross-reference below) has erred happily on the side of wood, space and reverberating air to create a venue that—for better or worse—reveals everything that is played, heard or sung. Perhaps a sign of the budgetary times, unlike it’s Swiss counterpart, the overabundance of visible light fixtures, most certainly detracts from the aesthetic.
Unfortunately, and similar to my recent visit to Carnegie Hall and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (cross reference below), from the first measure of the overture, it was clear that I was in for another long night of “close but no cigar” ensemble. The last time I heard Nézet-Séguin (just starting his career, courtesy of a CBC radio broadcast—cross-reference below), I was concerned that the Strauss waltz on offer, never truly got off the page. But as I already knew, Viennese waltzes are some of the most difficult works for any maestro to truly bring to life.
Seeing/hearing him in person (perched in the left-hand loges—an ideal point of view), I could understand why the very accomplished players, collectively, couldn’t fathom where the downbeat was. In my personal experience (on all sides of the artistic divide: conductor/writer)/listener, I have learned that holding the baton as an extension of the arm/index finger yields the best results. Clutching it in an almost perpendicular manner in the right hand, and—very often—letting the left hand move at will rather than in sync, gives those looking for absolute clarity too many options depending on where their point of view is. Razor-sharp ensemble is best achieved by anchoring the body to the podium and making the hands/baton offer only one option. (Somewhere the likes of George Szell and Rafael Kubelik are nodding in agreement.)
And so the overture bubbled along but never really reflected the genius of its composer.
As for the arias, DiDonato’s radiant voice and first-rate diction (along with moments of body language that reinforced the meaning of the words) was a constant pleasure. Nonetheless, clarinetist/basset hornist Aldrich, with a finely nuanced tone, technique that made his interjections sound deceptively easy, and an understanding of when to take stage or slip into the background, provided the finest music making of the entire evening. Merci mille fois!!
As for the Bruckner, it was a curious mixture of—again—almost together, rhythmic vagaries (the vital duple versus triple themes eluding the magnificence of their intended contrast) and a plethora of phrases that—after being far too vertical than horizontal—merely stopped rather than ended. Many of the latter were the direct result of Nézet-Séguin’s decision to let the orchestra finish on its own, rather than sculpting the release. And the third movement, albeit labelled by the composer as Sehr Schell (“very fast,” 1874), then Bewegt (“with motion,” 1878) was taken at such a clip, that the hall’s ability to provide “ring” and moments of extraordinary contemplation were lost in the shuffle. Excitement is fine—I am all for it—but a breath or two along the way (~72 minutes in this case) couldn’t hurt.
Finally, the tremolos: a vrai favourite of the Austrian genius. Decades ago, I learned from Kazuyoshi Akiyama the complete difference in dramatic aural realization if the conductor’s left hand is clenched rather than just limply held.
Overall, there was the feeling of hearing the notes of this incredible symphony, but, sadly, not having felt them. JWR