L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal returned home after a successful European tour to the reassuring confines of la Maison Symphonique and a program of French music and music inspired by French poetry. The guest conductor was a regular OSM collaborator, Michel Plasson, and the invited soloist local but internationally renowned soprano, Karina Gauvin.

The program featured several of Plasson’s most cherished composers including Debussy, Fauré and Chausson but also Britten whose song cycle Les Illuminations are settings of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. It must be said that it was difficult not to feel a certain sense of nostalgia during and after the evening’s music making. Plasson is over 80 years of age and harkens back to a golden age of French conducting, a time when Monteux, Fournet and so many others left an indelible mark on the understanding and interpretation of French music.

Though Plasson is from a younger generation, he still reflects many of those common interpretative values and shared virtues. Nuages opened proceedings and instantly demonstrated Plasson’s ability at evoking contrasting musical climates so essential in Debussy’s vision of clouds silently travelling across the sky. Here the orchestra’s sonority glowed with a warmth and power that carried into the more elf-like Fêtes where orchestral colours and rhythmic contrasts abounded and Debussy’s magical score had a luminous almost radiant quality.

Musical genres changed drastically when Karina Gauvin stepped onto the stage to perform Britten’s wartime song cycle Les Illuminations. From the opening Fanfare, one felt an almost immediate association between soloist and conductor, between composer and poet. The recurring mantra J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage set the stage for a virtuoso performance of this demanding cycle. The principal difficulties lie in the communication of Rimbaud’s often suggestive always flamboyant verbal imagery and its musical setting by Britten. His very personal not to say idiosyncratic word setting tests the technical and expressive abilities of his performer to the utmost. Gauvin met every challenge Britten could throw at her. She was as rhythmically alert, theatrically alive and musically precise in Villes as she was lyrically persuasive in Phrase and Antique. After a haunting Interlude with its reiteration of the signature phrase, J’ai seul la clef de cette parade sauvage, the final three songs showed Gauvin at her most eloquent and convincing especially in Being beauteous. Here she revealed an artist’s palette of colours and a stunning control of dynamics, vocal line and verbal nuance matched only by the floating and wondrous legato of the final Départ. If her diction occasionally lapsed it had more to do with Britten cruelly demanding tessitura than her inability to project text. Throughout Les Illuminations, the OSM strings and Plasson were more than simple accompanists; rather, they were active, creative partners.

After the interval, Plasson emerged to conduct two favourite works from memory. Fauré’s orchestral suite, Pelleas et Melisande, incidental music for Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, demonstrated elements that have become second nature for Plasson but which, alas, many younger conductors may never learn. Fileuse illustrated how Plasson can not only shape but sustain a melody as well as capturing the internal pulsation of a musical phrase. Sicilienne had a freshness, an elegance and a simplicity that it rarely receives today. Throughout textures were translucent though Plasson’s lightness of touch never compromised orchestral unity.  

Though the orchestra was missing several first chairs, the depth and overall strength of the ensemble was confirmed in the final work on the program, Chausson’s rarely performed B flat major Symphony. Almost always unconventional and original, Chausson’s works have a personal musical fingerprint that makes them instantly recognisable. His symphony may at first appear structurally and formally strange. It might appear to have few symphonic models except perhaps for his teacher Cesar Franck’s mighty D minor symphony. Yet it is a captivating work with an epic grandeur (especially in the opening movement) and a lyrical intensity that bears witness to the Wagnerian influence that coloured much of Chausson’s harmonic and tonal language.  Plasson let the work speak for itself and invested it with impassioned commitment beautifully drawing out the recurring and Tristan-like themes in the final Animé movement. He also allowed Chausson’s customary unexpected resolutions and conclusions to make their full effect rather than apologise for them. It was another object lesson in how to capture the essential essence of French music. Indeed it was not only another illustration of how to reveal the true nature of French music but in having the courage of one’s musical and artistic convictions. The appreciative audience seemed to agree, giving the conductor and orchestra a rousing and deserved standing ovation.