European Imagery with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
Claude Debussy: Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Antonín Dvorák: Cello Concerto no. 2 in B minor, op. 104
Albéric Magnard: Symphony no. 4 in C sharp minor, op. 21
Alisa Weilerstein (Cello)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Stéphane Laforest (Conductor)
A. Weilerstein (Courtesy of the Artist)
On Wednesday evening the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) presented three European works composed between 1892 and 1913, each of which in different ways evoked imagery.
Debussy’s revolutionary Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, inspired by a poem from the French Symbolist Stéphane Mallarmé, evokes impressions of a faun dreaming of two nymphs at play in a forest. Instead of traditional harmonies and orchestration, the 10-minute work uses orchestral color and a repetitive motif passed seamlessly from one section of the orchestra to another to suggest a dreamlike atmosphere bathed in a half-light. The OSM, renowned in the French repertory, didn’t disappoint. Its delicate, airy performance flawlessly rendered the work’s shimmering sonorities and subtle impressions to evoke the dreamlike atmosphere of Mallarmé’s poem. The principal flutist, Timothy Hutchins, the harps and the horns played with silken sensuality.
Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, written mostly while he was director of the National Conservatory of New York in 1894, is imbued with images of American and Bohemian folk melody as well as a startling Irish gig. During the past few years I’ve heard a parade of young cellists tackle Dvorák’s last major orchestral work with the utmost seriousness and intent. But although they generally perform with conviction, marvellous technique and respect for the score, they invariably intend to play on the surface. They don’t dig down into the instrument to release the heart of the work. One doesn’t hear the passion and profundity of a Rostropovich or even aYo-Yo Ma. And so it was with the young American Alisa Weilerstein. She performed with intensity, a singing tone and a scrappy touch when required, but failed to produce much excitement. Her sound was mellow and dreamy in the slow and soft passages, particularly in the coda of the last movement, which reflects Dvorák’s feelings over the early death of his beloved sister-in-law Josefina Kounicova. Weilerstein and the orchestra, however, did not play with the same spirit. Stéphane Laforest, the former assistant to Kent Nagano, was on the podium, replacing the originally scheduled Jean-Marie Zeitouni, another Montrealer and conductor of the Columbus Symphony. (Where was the current assistant to Mr Nagano, Nathan Brock?)
The music of the Frenchman, Albéric Magnard, is rarely performed in Montreal, and this was the first time the OSM performed his Symphony No. 4, which is considered his masterpiece. It is interesting and challenging. A student of César Franck and Vincent d’Indy, his career was cut short by the Germans in World War I. If Debussy can be compared to the Impressionists, Magnard could be likened to the neo-impressionists. Like Cézanne, his music is laid out in patch-like blocks of colour, bumping up against each other, but unlike Cézanne, he doesn’t seem to know where he’s going. At times the music suggests program or film music, but not on a par with, for example, that of Korngold. Despite these challenges, the orchestra played with verve, colour and panache, with controlled support from Laforest. Concertmaster Andrew Wan offered fine, articulate solo playing and the brass were in top form, playing better than they have been in past seasons.
Earl Arthur Love