The dictum while the cat’s away the mice will play was never more clearly illustrated than on a freezing Sunday afternoon in Montréal. With l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal away on tour in Europe, Canada’s oldest symphony orchestra, l’Orchestre symphonique de Québec was invited to drive down the Autoroute 40 in order to present a program of music by Manuel de Falla and Maurice Ravel at the Maison Symphonique.

According to another dictum, comparisons may be odious but obviously the OSQ’s French musical director, Fabien Gabel is not afraid of any comparisons as he had chosen to showcase his orchestra in repertoire closely associated with the OSM and more specifically the former music director, Charles Dutoit. There are several similarities between Gabel and his esteemed senior colleague, Dutoit. They both have an elegant and tensile physical presence and posture. With Gabel, arching arm gestures are incorporated into a bouncy, buoyant body language, somewhat reminiscent of a coiled spring of compressed energy. Gabel, who had made an auspicious Opéra de Montréal debut last season conducting Massenet’s Manon, had decided on works composed in the two decades between 1908 and 1928 and began with an OSM favourite, the second suite from de Falla’s Diaghilev ballet, El sombrero de tres picos. The suite’s three short excerpts demonstrated not only the orchestra’s generally fine ensemble playing and balance but featured outstanding solo contributions from Philippe Magnan, oboist, and English horn player, Hélene Déry. Expansive of gesture and unambiguous in the fluidity of his conducting, Gabel caught the Spanish flavour and French school’s orchestral mastery of form inherent in de Falla’s writing to a tee.

Though de Falla was a native of Spain and his musical heart and soul were formed by the composer Pedrell, whose love of native folk-music remained with his protege throughout his lifetime, de Falla, the orchestral colourist, was fashioned in France and specifically Paris. Gabel’s tempis in both “The Miller’s Dance” and “Jota”, tended towards the brisk without being forced or manufactured and he sought orchestral definition and colour that tended towards the chiaro rather than the scuro. Another de Falla piece, Nights in the Gardens of Spain, brought the first part of the concert to a close. Originally intended as a series of solo nocturnes for piano, de Falla, primarily at the urging of his pianist friend Ricardo Vines, adapted the work into a episodic, musically rambling but attractive piano concerto of sorts in three linked sections or movements. Gabel’s countryman, the pianist Bertrand Chamayou, was the soloist. He brought lean tone, forthright articulation and rhythmically pointed playing to the work, but little in the way of warmth of tone or contrasting sonorities. There were also very occasional orchestral issues of coordination, pitch and balance especially in the climatic section of the first movement. Gabel’s reading was, strangely, neutral of colour and, expressively, largely inert.

Thankfully, things changed significantly after the interval when Gabel and the OSQ turned their attention to Ravel. Though a native Frenchman, Ravel was born close to the Spanish border to a Basque mother and Spain, and its musical heritage, remained a constant source of inspiration. All three pieces in the second half underlined and reflected this dimension of Ravel’s character. Gabel and the OSQ admirably communicated the rhythmic flair and especially the shape and sweep of Ravel’s spicy range of orchestral colour in the short and brilliant Alborada del gracioso. The performance was also notable for Richard Gagnon’s richly effective bassoon solo. From the hushed and unsettling opening and provocative rising melodic curves of the “Prélude à la nuit”, Gabel offered a beautifully poised and comprehensively sensual reading of Ravel’s 1908 landmark Rapsodie espagnole. “Malagueña” had the requisite elf-like and winsome character while “Habanera” reeked of the required fusion of Spanish discretion even “pudeur” and voluptuousness. The orchestra, despite an impure attack or two, nevertheless captured in impressive fashion the style and atmosphere of Feria, providing an evocative sonority throughout that never made the thrilling climax feel over-parted or exaggerated.

Ravel’s most celebrated showpiece, Bolero, concluded the concert. In Gabel’s hands, this piece, still intimately associated with Dutoit and the OSM, became an exercise in the development of rhythmic patterns and especially of systems of sonority. In an impeccably graded and accentuated performance of great distinction, Gabel captivated and never capitulated to the possible excesses of the piece. He refused to yield to the transient and launch the life-boats but stayed in complete command of his vessel leading to a resplendent final climax. The OSQ may lack the technical finish and polish of the OSM but under Gabel’s guidance they demonstrated that they must be highly regarded in their own right.