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Orchestre symphonique de Montréal Inaugurates New Hall

Maison symphonique de Montréal, Place des Arts
09/07/2011 -  and September 9, 10, 2011
Claude Vivier: Jesus erbarme dich
Joséphine Bacon and Yann Martel: Original texts
Gilles Tremblay: Envol: Alléluia for solo flute
Marie-Claire Blais and Wajdi Mouawad: Original texts
Julien Bilodeau: Qu’un cri élève nos chants!
Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 in D minor, opus 125

Erin Wall (Soprano), Mihoko Fujimura (Mezzo-soprano), Simon O’Neill (tenor), Mikhail Petrenko (bass), Andrée Lachapelle, Chloé Sainte-Marie, Marc Béland, David Usher (readers), Timothy Hutchins (flute)
Chœur de l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Tafelmusik Chamber Choir, Ivars Taurins (Guest Conductor), Orchestre symphonique de Montréal, Kent Nagano (Conductor)

(© LuceTG.com)

The Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) inaugurated Montréal’s new concert hall, the Maison symphonique de Montréal, with a gala concert on September 7. A dream comes true, after years of on again, off again planning, Montréal now has a world-class symphonic venue.

The interior of the new 1,900-seat auditorium, with its three balconies, is aesthetically stunning. (It can accommodate up to 2,120 spectators if the choral seating area is used; there is standing room at the top tier.) The traditional shoebox design with continental seating is quite high, giving the illusion that the hall is larger than it really is. (The distance from front stage to the back row of the upper balcony is only 129 feet.) The interior surfaces consist of blond Québec beech and undulating white plaster stripes along the walls, which serve the hall acoustically and decoratively. Moveable baffles and panels in the ceiling are designed to accommodate different musical styles.

The auditorium’s acoustics are warm, clear and at times crisp without being too bright. The first sounds heard in the hall in front of a full house on Wednesday night were from the Canadian soprano Erin Wall, accompanied by the Chœur de l’OSM and the Tafelmusik Chamber Choir from Toronto. They performed the first of three Canadian pieces on the program—Claude Vivier’s Jesus erbarme dich (Kyrie elesion-Jesus, have mercy) for soprano and a cappella choir. Composed in 1974, this haunting, three-minute work created an echoing dialogue between the solo voice and choir. The warm tones, mostly in pianissimo, radiated throughout the hall with softness and mystical calm.

Between the Canadian compositions Québec actors Marc Béland, Andrée Lachapelle, actor-singer Chloé Sainte-Marie and singer-songwriter David Usher recited original texts created by Joséphine Bacon, Yann Martel, Marie-Claire Blais and Wajdi Mouawad. These short poems and prose pieces, ranging from Bacon’s invocation of primal sounds and rhythms in the innu language to Mouawad’s reminder of the power of music to console the living and the dead, proved a suitable prelude to the universal messages of Beethoven’s Ninth and Schiller’s Ode to Joy.

OSM principal flutist Timothy Hutchins next performed from the organ loft Gilles Tremblay’s (b. 1932) Envol: Alléluia pour flûte seule (for solo flute). This eclectic composition also created a dialogue, this time with the instrument itself, employing almost inaudible echoes of the work’s themes plus the use of key clicks, whistle tones, multiphonics and white noise to evoke primal images of unspoiled nature. Hutchins performed the work impeccably and the clear, crisp sounds he produced again showed off the hall’s impressive acoustics. The eight-minute work, however, was too long; before the end spectators to my left and right were flipping through their programs.

The last Canadian work (commissioned by the OSM for the occasion) was the world premiere of Julien Bilodeau’s (b. 1974) Qu’un cri élève nos chants! (Let a great cry lift up our songs!). In his own words: “In bringing together motifs from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in a long melody that traces a perpetual chromatic ascension, Qu’un cri élève nos chants! celebrates all periods of music (past, present and future) that, in this new performing space, will find new and unexpected means of expression. Let the music, like a great cry, reveal itself in all its purity!” Indeed it did. From the opening timpani roll to the crescendo of the trumpets to the silken strains of the harp to the final soft note on the xylophone, this work showcased all elements of the orchestra. Its diverse moods, including riffs on Beethoven’s Ninth, covered an emotional landscape that suggested melancholy, bleakness and, thankfully, hope, a fitting introduction to the Ninth which followed without intermission.

The glorious Ninth, for which we had been pumped up by months of relentless publicity, came as an anti-climax. Performances by individual sections and soloists of the orchestra (except for the trumpets) were exemplary. Their sound was warm and clearly articulated. When the full orchestra played, however, the sound became mushy and ponderous, the strings overbearing and the woodwinds and horns seemed to disappear. Nagano should have disciplined the strings to play with more precision and clarity. There was some sense of dynamic authority, but the work overall lacked verve, unity, direction, inspiration and vision.

Bass Mikhail Petrenko’s opening cry of “O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!” came like a thunderbolt to where I was sitting in the middle-right of the third balcony. His voice was rich, virile and steeped in authority. Erin Wall’s soprano at first was sharp and piercing but did warm up and relax. Tenor Simon O’Neill’s began with a pinched, nasal sound and was difficult to hear above the choir, but he too improved as the movement progressed. I could just barely hear mezzo-soprano Mihoko Fujimura. The choir sang with force and vigour, but their diction was unclear and they didn’t seem to be as well prepared as they were for the opening work on the program.

The $266 million hall was built by the Government of Quebec as part of a public-private partnership with SNC-Lavalin, through its subsidiary, Groupe immobilier Ovation. The lead architect was Jack Diamond, Principal with Diamond and Schmitt Architects, Inc. (He also designed the highly-acclaimed Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto and is working on the new Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.) Acoustics were by Artec Consultants Inc.

Some work remains to be done on the building (the auditorium appears to be complete, and the over-6000-pipe Casavant Frères organ will not be installed before Spring 2014). The seats (at least in the balcony) were rather hard and uncomfortable after two hours without a break, and the individual air-conditioning units under each seat did not alleviate the heat and humidity on Wednesday evening. But I shall be reporting on two more concerts of the inaugural series during the next week and may have more observations to make on the physical aspects of the hall.

After the concert (which ended at 20h15), the OSM graciously offered a wine and hors d’oeuvres reception in the lobby area of Place des Arts, during which patrons could mingle and chat with members of the orchestra.

Earl Arthur Love



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