With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal presented a concert centered on “symphonic love”, but if you assume this means roses, waltzes, and chocolate bars, think again. A very different spin on the many forms of love – mostly involving tragedy – unfolded on the stage of La Maison Symphonique. Under Alexander Shelley’s impeccable direction, the orchestra provided a full program of works by two Romantic-era composers and a 20th-century work of boundless imagination, but a cool, even icy approach to Eros.

Alexander Shelley
© Antoine Saito

Psychologists and theologians generally agree that there are seven forms of love, of which romantic affection, or passionate love, is only one. In his informal comments before the concert, Shelley focused on romantic love which, he noted, “is only fun when it goes wrong”. It certainly does go wrong for the main characters in Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture.

This is an orchestra that knows how to play together and produce a sound that can be both luxuriant and meticulous. Under Shelley’s lead, the shape of Tchaikovsky’s creation developed in a way I’ve never quite heard before, telling a story without words in interconnected chapters. The opening dark tones of clarinet and bassoon, joined by the undulating vibration of the low strings, launched a journey through melodic richness that swelled, faded and returned again like the beat of a human heart. Yet, there was nothing excessive or ostentatious about this approach. If anything, I wanted to hear a bit of irregularity, of gushiness. It was almost too perfect, and in this joined its partner on the program, the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

It concluded the program on a note of stateliness and majesty. Everything about the performances of the Tchaikovsky and the Wagner was serious, high-minded, and a little reserved. Even the appearance of the orchestra contributed to this sense of impenetrable dignity, with men in the orchestra wearing tuxedos, and Shelley (the son of two classical pianists) perfectly poised and elegant throughout. Again, I would have liked to experience something more heartfelt when that famous rising discord resolves in a big fortissimo. But there were moments of sheer perfection as when the harp and rasping low woodwinds suggest the descent of rapture into death.

Andrew Wan plays Bernstein with the OSM
© Antoine Saito

Less emotional, but intellectually bracing was the centerpiece of the program, Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade after Plato’s “Symposium”. This is a philosophical discourse on love as Plato imagines it, with five Greek philosophers sharing their points of view. Violinist Andrew Wan provided an incomparable reading of a score loaded with difficulties and the kind of lyricism you’d expect from a composer equally adept at musical comedy, opera and symphonic genres. This intensely cerebral work is about half an hour in length, and is scored for strings, nearly a dozen percussion instruments and harp, an arrangement which allows the composer to create an ever-changing variety of effects and colors. The work concluded with a flourish, musicians and soloist cheerily applauding each other in the otherwise empty hall.

This performance was reviewed from OSM's video stream