Three Montreal luminaries of symphonic music, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Marina Thibeault and Violet Archer, contributed to a delightful afternoon concert entitled Berlioz in Italy. This event was the inaugural concert of the 2019-2020 season for the Orchestre Métropolitain. Prior to the concert, it was announced that Maestro Nézet-Séguin has been appointed the ensemble’s “Director for Life”. He was duly given a lengthy standing ovation.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

The program began with Berlioz' Roman Carnival. This is based on recycled music from Berlioz’s failed opera Benvenuto Cellini. The OM did full justice to this overture, which has become a cornerstone of the repertoire. Mélanie Harel was solid on English horn. The woodwind section is to be commended for its mastery of the work’s technical demands. With particular kudos to the brass section, the final chord was stunning.

A Canadian work ensued, Violet Archer’s Poem for Orchestra. The composer’s birth name was Violetta Balestreri (Archer is a rough translation of the Italian balestra). Her 1939 Poem for Orchestra is reminiscent of a range of earlier composers, from Vaughan Williams to Ravel and, subsequently, Wagner. It exploits the gamut of the orchestra’s dynamic range and spectrum of tonal colours. Although this piece is infrequently performed, Nézet-Séguin proved that he was well prepared and the Orchestre Métropolitain was able to realize the work's expressive potential. The string bass section handled its exposed material with commendable tuning. The contribution of flutist Marie-Andrée Benny was stellar.

After intermission violist Marina Thibeault joined the orchestra for Berlioz’ Harold in Italy. This composition was commissioned by Niccolò Paganini in 1833 to showcase a Stradivarius viola he had recently acquired. Berlioz composed a kind of sinfonia concertante, rather than a traditional concerto. To this end, Ms Thibeault was initially positioned upstage within the orchestra, later down in front of the orchestra. During a lengthy orchestral section, the soloist left the stage all together.

Ms Thibeault afforded herself well. Her tone was beautifully resonant, even when upstage and playing softly in the viola’s low register. In particular, Ms Thibeault’s rhythmic precision is laudable. Furthermore, this rhythmic precision was used as a vehicle to bring out the richness of the music. In their pizzicato, the precision of the double basses left something to be desired, but the horn section certainly rose to the occasion.

Nézet-Séguin demonstrated a real affinity for this work. The tenderness of the Serenade as well as the shaping of the lines and phrases in the beginning of the final movement were stand-outs. As always, this Maestro drew out the best from the Orchestre Métropolitain musicians.

Should American readers wish to hear this fine Montreal orchestra and their dynamic conductor, they will be performing in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia in November of this year.