Who needs a conductor? Evidently not the strings of the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal. As world class ensembles such as the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra have proven, cohesion can be achieved in large groups of instrumentalists in the absence of a conductor on the podium. As is often the case in this situation, the OSM strings played with as much – or more – rhythmic accuracy and unity of interpretation as would have typically been the case with a conductor. However from my seat, the balance could have been improved by hearing more from the second violins and occasionally the violas.

James Ehnes and the OSM strings
© Antoine Saito

It was evident that the OSM's string players hold their concertmaster Andrew Wan in high regard. With the assistance of his fellow section leaders, he displayed sufficient physical gestures to ensure that the group stayed together. On the rare occasions when matters went slightly off course, it was obvious from Wan's body language that he was au courant. With laudable alacrity, everything came back on track. Repertoire selection is the foundation of a successful concert, and the chamber orchestral works of Shostakovich, Bach and Vaughan Williams that were chosen for this program aptly suited its "From Darkness to Light" theme.

The concert opened with Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C minor, Rudolf Barshai's arrangement of the Eighth String Quartet. This sombre work remains the most popular of the Shostakovich quartets. Three double basses richly supported the resonance of the string section. In the technically challenging second movement, the work of the first violin section was a standout. The solo playing of concertmaster Chan as well as viola player Victor de Almeida and cellist Brian Manker enhanced this superb performance. The closing decrescendo to niente was sublime.

James Ehnes
© Antoine Saito

Canadian violinist James Ehnes, a prodigy who made his solo debut with the OSM aged 13, was the guest artist on this program. He began with the Gigue from the Bach's Second Partita. His virtuosic technique resulted in sparklingly clear playing. Ehnes' 1715 "Marsick" Stradivarius produced a gorgeous, shimmering tone in his skilled hands. Judicious attention to accents revealed the melodic architecture of this tour de force for solo violin. Evidently the original plan was to segue directly to the D minor violin concerto by the same composer. However some audience members could not hold back their applause for the unaccompanied Gigue. It made for an awkward moment that was adroitly handled by the soloist. With the exception of some ritornello sections, the strings did not exhibit the verve they brought to the other pieces in this concert. Nonetheless, the effusive ovation that followed Ehnes’ concerto performance was deserved.

Rounding out the programme was the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the work that vaulted Ralph Vaughan Williams to the top tier of British composers. It utilizes a full orchestral string section, split into two orchestras and features some solo quartet work. Had the smaller Orchestra II been situated in the loft, it may well have better served their antiphonal role. Nonetheless, Orchestra II was often able to achieve a celestial effect. Perhaps owing to the fact that string players are not accustomed to being situated at the very back of the stage, its lower voices occasionally needed to push ahead rhythmically.

Overall, the timbre in the Vaughan Williams was beautifully rich. The featured quartet raised the bar even higher. Solo work on both violin and viola were particularly  meritorious. It deservedly received warm applause from the sparse (due to Covid restrictions) crowd. It is a testament to the professionalism of the OSM's string section that they gave their all in a hall that was at a mere 10% capacity.