Programming Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor is bound to boost ticket sales. Rarely however does one hear a fresh approach to this war horse, but pianist Inon Barnatan, conductor Rafael Payare and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal accomplished just that.

Inon Barnatan and the OSM
© Antoine Saito

The Tchaikovsky concerto was heralded by the OSM's solid French horn section, the sumptuous first theme played with conviction. It was heartwarming to witness the smiles exchanged between Payare and principal cellist Brian Manker following the latter's stellar solo passage. Barnatan's willingness to assume a sensitive accompanist's role where appropriate contributed to the magic of this performance. Soloist, conductor and orchestral forces attained a high degree of symbiosis throughout. The orchestra's well managed flow of energy in the final few measures made for a riveting finish.

Barnatan adroitly handled the Tchaikovsky's many marcato passages with the force of a Gatling gun. He played the many cadenza-like passages with dazzling technique. Additionally, he employed a broad palette of articulations and tone colours. In this performance, Barnatan was able to bring out the concerto's subtleties, rather than merely use the work as a vehicle to showcase technical wizardry. His approach was both distinctive and enlightened.

In the opening to Sibelius' First Symphony, an eerie mood was evoked by the sensitive clarinet solo work by Todd Cope. The string section stated the first theme with admirable conviction and transparency. A lovely ethereal quality was educed in the second movement. There was a particularly beautiful section in which the melodic line passed through the woodwind section, from low to high voices. As the second movement progressed, the musicians skillfully evoked a gamut of emotions. In the third movement, the stylistic choices brought to bear in the marcato and lyrical sections enhanced their complementary relationship. In the last movement, the OSM seemed to conjure up an ominous spirit. The technical work of both the string and woodwind sections was polished. Kudos to the principal trumpeter, who was able to sweetly float on top of some chorale-like passages.

Rafael Payare conducts the OSM
© Antoine Saito

In a few cases in the course of this symphony, had the brass maintained its intensity while slightly dropping the decibel level, it may well have better suited the overall orchestral balance in this vibrant acoustic. Perhaps the approach to the Sibelius should have been a little more like Debussy, a little less like Bruckner. The flute section consistently played with impeccable intonation, particularly challenging in the Sibelius.

Maestro Payare is the OSM's Music Director Designate. With them, the orchestra's sound is pellucidly transparent, particularly in the string section. Payare conducts much of the time with large gestures, which can inhibit the player's freedom to play with the utmost expressiveness. Fritz Reiner once told his conducting pupils, “Give extremely small gestures to let the orchestra find its own musicality.” But overall, the youthful Payare is evidently off to an awesome start with the OSM. The musicians seem to genuinely enjoy playing their best for him. Fingers crossed that the current period of cooperation and commitment to top rate music-making will extend beyond the honeymoon period.