A Didactic Evening with the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier, Place des Arts
05/10/2011 - & May 11, 2011
Giovanni Gabrieli: Sacrae Symphoniae (for brass), “Canzona septimi toni” and “Canzona noni toni”
Johann Sebastian Bach: Sinfonias [Three-Part Inventions]: No. 1 in C major, BWV 787; No. 2 in C minor, BWV 788; No. 3 in D major, BWV 789; No. 4 in D minor, BWV 790; No. 5 in E-flat major, BWV 790; No. 8 in F major, BWV 794; No. 9 in F minor, BWV 795; No. 11 in G minor, BWV 797; No. 12 in A major, BWV 798; No. 15 in B minor, BWV 801
Anton Webern: Symphony, opus 21
Igor Stravinski: Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 version)
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 5 in C minor, opus 67
Angela Hewitt (Piano)
Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (Conductor)
A. Hewitt (Courtesy of OSM)
This week (May 10 and 11) the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) presented a program that attempted to trace the evolution of the symphony. Original it was; whether it was successful is debatable. The audience had been asked not to applaud between numbers before the intermission, so that all pieces could be played with hardly a pause, presumably to illustrate the development of the “symphonic idea.” (Maestro Nagano stood motionless on the podium during the Gabrieli Canzoni and Bach Sinfonias and began conducting only with the Webern Symphonie). The program notes indicated that “sounding together”, taken from the Greek “syn” (together) and “phone” (sounding) was the premise for the works selected for the program. But to me, all music played by more than one instrument “sounds together.”
The concert opened with the earliest of the works, (though thereafter the chronology was haphazard)—two pieces from Gabrieli’s Sacrae Symphoniae for brass (1597). These polychoral motets were inspired by the separate galleries at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice which Gabrieli saw as an opportunity for spatially separate choirs—here, two groups of two trumpets and two trombones each at stage left and stage right at the rear, a true case of “sounding together”. The two choirs performed admirably with impressive dynamic contrasts and closing tuttis.
Pianist Angela Hewitt, relegated to extreme stage right, then played the first five of the Bach Sinfonias. These, according to the program notes, are “unrelated, ‘sounding together’ not meant in the sense of combining voices and instruments, but perhaps rather as a combination of different contrapuntal lines.” Hewitt played them on a grand piano with a delicate, restrained but expressive touch. She exhibited a lovely balance and flawless technique, but not once did the volume rise above mezzo-forte. This volume level continued more or less for the remaining works on first half of the program.
Next came Webern’s Symphony (1929), an eight-minute, two-movement work regarded as a masterpiece of atonality. Its severe economy and restrained expression, however, produced a mournful atmosphere that did nothing to alleviate the mood of the Bach Sinfonias. But like the latter, again according to the program notes, it uses “a cultivation of counterpoint as an expressive tool.” Nevertheless, the leap from Bach to Webern was startling. Then came more Bach Sinfonias from Angela Hewitt—richer, more complex and played slightly louder than the first group.
Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments (1920 version) followed—another short, rather low-key work with showy conversations between the winds and brass. It may have been chosen because it is “end-directed” like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, or because it is a “composition as many things put together—instead of a romantic monolith that gathers everything into a single vision,” (again, program notes). The playing was nearly perfect.
The first part of the program concluded with three more Bach Sinfonias. The tepid response from the normally enthusiastic audience confirmed that the evening had been dull (Gabrieli excepted) up to this point.
After intermission, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony came to the rescue. Nagano and the OSM gave a fine, exuberant reading, although like most of their Beethoven, it lacked crispness. They paid scrupulous attention to the text and Nagano achieved a fine balance among the strings, woodwinds and brass. (He used the full complement of strings, including eight basses, making their first appearance of the evening.) I hope listeners didn’t leave thinking that this was the culmination of the evolution of the symphony.
After the formal program, most unusually, the orchestra gave two encores. First, an elegant “Siciliane” from Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande, then an uplifting overture to Berlioz with the brass resplendent and pumping adrenalin.
The OSM and Angela Hewitt are scheduled to repeat this program on May 14 at Carnegie Hall’s “Spring for Music Festival.” It was partly on the strength of innovative programming that orchestras applying to the Festival were selected to participate. Eccentric programming aside, one has to wonder why the world-renowned OSM is participating in this festival with second tier orchestras. Like other major orchestras, the OSM has a fine tradition of playing in Carnegie Hall. It is unfortunate that this program will not show off their full strengths.
Earl Arthur Love