On this evening concert, the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal’s program was a collage-like display of the diverse music that emerged from composers in New York City from 1936 to 1956. This period would have been a rich and eclectic artistic time in the city – Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock presented their works, Jack Kerouac began writing On the Road, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie played in jazz clubs and John Cage premiered the infamous 4’33”. While works of American composers Bernstein and Barber were on the program, it was Bela Bartók – an immigrant to the US – whose work was front and centre. On the whole, the attitude of the evening was bold, taking the audience in fresh and unexpected directions.

Kent Nagano © Benjamin Ealovega
Kent Nagano
© Benjamin Ealovega

The concert began with Kent Nagano whisking the audience in to the fanfare-like opening of Bernstein’s Candide Overture. With lively marching band vigour, it is the kind of work one could easily imagine being as at home on Broadway as in the concert hall. There are oom-pah bass lines, xylophone doublings and uneven rhythms which all provide an off-kilter energy and a humorous quality. From these light moments arise feel-good, singing melodies in the strings that are warm and full. It was as if the orchestra was a big party band, ready for any and every occasion.

This was followed by Bartók’s Violin Concerto no. 2, a stark contrast from the light-heartedness of the Bernstein. The highly-charged solo was performed by Augustin Dumay, who was billed as one of the greats of the European tradition. As the opening melody rose out of the light harp accompaniment, Dumay’s direction for the work was clear – confident and determined, like a maverick setting foot on wild terrain. The expressive long lines of the violin cried out. Rapid chromatic passages and triple stops were easily executed while maintaining the work’s solemn atmosphere. Dumay also excellently stepped in to the role of the folk violinist in passages which demanded microtones, double and triple-stops and brisk octaves; these passages were defiant statements fitting to the character of the work. The second movement was much lighter and dream-like, beautifully set up by the orchestra. It seemed a more delicate, fragile quality could have benefited the solo at the opening of the movement. However, it wasn’t long until the folk character of the previous movement reappeared. The final movement was complete with rhythmic shots, Bartókian pizzicato and a number of astonishing violin feats that thrust the piece forward right to the end.

The mood shifted yet again with Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a staple of both classical repertoire and popular culture. The opening of the piece emerged out of silence, as if the strings were pulling the vibrations closer from a distance. The performance was sensitive, delicate and beautifully voiced with the cellos sounding as a single tenor voice. Nagano conveyed the struggle of the piece, showing the reaching and longing of the slow moving melodies. As the music ascended upward, one got the impression of a fragile, celestial aura.

It seemed fitting that this concert of many contrasts concluded with a work of many contrasts - Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Not only was this piece a display of the orchestra at its full capacity, but it was an opportunity to see Nagano’s straightforward approach. The solemn introduction and serious first movement give way to a humorous second movement featuring a bumbling bassoon and oboe line, muted trumpets and pizzicato strings. Nagano navigates it all with care, articulating phrases and accents with precision and efficiency. The brass really shone with a wonderful, pure sound in their respective horn and brass quintet solos. Whether it was the mysterious quality of the third movement, the light character of the fourth or the energetic frenzy of the fifth, Nagano maintained his straightforward approach, leading the orchestra on a whirlwind journey with his calculated gestures and clear direction. With each section contributing its virtuosic portion to the whole of this concerto, the brilliance of the orchestra in full force brought the concert to a dramatic finish.

It was exciting to find a program so wide in its emotional scope, packed to the brim with struggle, heartache, humour, joy and transcendence. The evening was a reflection on the diversity of mid-twentieth century composition and the ability of each artist to bring a unique approach to their community.