In his opening remarks at Montreal’s Maison Symphonique, Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin said that he had long been interested in performing Leonard Bernstein’s Jeremiah Symphony and Felix Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praise Symphony on the same program. The Bernstein portrays the composer’s humanistic reflections on the saga of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah. Mendelssohn, who converted to Christianity, incorporated texts from the Book of Psalms as well as the New Testament in his Hymn of Praise, which is largely celebratory in nature. Both works explore the role religious faith plays in the cultivation of the human spirit.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Orchestre Métropolitain | François Goupil

In addition to the Orchestre Métropolitain, Nézet-Séguin is Music Director of both the Philadelphia Orchestra and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Despite these taxing responsibilities, the Maestro makes time to work with the impressive student orchestra from the local École Secondaire Joseph-François Perrault. They played the last movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony immediately before the OM took to the stage.

Bernstein was only 24 when he composed the Jeremiah, conducting its premiere with the Pittsburgh Symphony in January of 1944. The Orchestre Métropolitain did justice to this demanding work. From a harmonic standpoint, many chords are difficult to balance and tune. The musicians are frequently called upon to sustain pitches in challenging registers and at extreme dynamic levels.

Nézet-Séguin succeeded in drawing out the dark colours embedded in the opening movement. There was some impressive playing by the flute/piccolo section. The diminuendo that closes this first movement was superb. In the subsequent Scherzo, the orchestra adroitly handled the mixed metres and polyrhythms. The well balanced percussion section contributed to the vitality of this movement. Soloist Karina Gauvin brought remarkable intensity to the foreboding final movement, where there were laudable contributions from the woodwind section. The OM string section is consistently outstanding when Nézet-Séguin is on the podium. In the Jeremiah's concluding movement, the resonance achieved in the softer passages by the strings was particularly meritorious.

After intermission the Choeur Métropolitain as well as a trio of vocal soloists joined the orchestra for Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise). This composition was premiered in 1840, seven years prior to the composer’s death. It is comprised of an instrumental Sinfonia as well as eight settings of a variety of texts from the Bible.

Throughout the Sinfonia, the responsiveness of the Orchestre Métropolitain to Nézet-Séguin’s expressive gestures was impressive. The exuberance of the string section lifted the music off the page in the initial Allegro. Principal clarinetist Simon Aldrich shone in the Sinfonia’s middle movement. A particularly effective transition was made to the final Adagio section. It was evident here that Nézet-Séguin was very much “in the moment”. This brought about many dulcet delights in the cantabile sections. In the enthusiastic “Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn” hymn, the chorus was occasionally over-powered by the orchestra. Karina Gauvin’s voice remained resonant, even when singing softly. In the subsequent “Er zählet unsere Tränen”, British tenor Andrew Staples demonstrated that he is deserving of his stellar reputation. There was some stirring singing by the Choeur Métropolitain’s soprano section in the rendition of “Saget es, die ihr erlöset seid”. Myriam Leblanc effectively blended with Gauvin in Mendelssohn’s setting of “Ich harrete des Herrn”. The horn solo in this movement, played by Louis-Philippe Marsolais, sounded great. Staples took full advantage of the chance to convey a range of emotions in the subsequent aria and recitative, which is based on three different Bible passages.

The celebratory “Die Nacht ist vergangen” chorus is reminiscent of the concluding section of part one of Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah. Nézet-Séguin was able to foster some genuinely thrilling moments here. The subsequent “Nun danket alle Gott” is in the style of a Bach chorale. In this homophonic material, it was evident that the choir was not rhythmically in sync, both on attacks and releases. The more powerful sections of this chorale movement sounded better. The choir sounded its best in the closing “Ihr Völker! bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!”. The overall balance was significantly better here. A gloriously climactic ending was achieved. In all these hymns, the orchestra’s role was not perfunctory, Nézet-Séguin ensuring that the instrumentalists were an integral component of this symphony’s mosaic.