The last couple of weeks were quite busy for the high-flying forty-two year-old Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who led all his current and future East Coast ensembles over that time span. He conducted three subscription concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra, repeating the same program – Bernstein, Mozart, Schumann – at Carnegie Hall. In between, he led Der Fliegende Holländer performances at the Metropolitan – where he will assume the title of Music Director Designate next season – and he contributed to the success of the Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary at the Lincoln Center Gala. Finally, Nézet-Séguin conducted three other performances with the Orchestre Métropolitain, the other ensemble for which he serves as Music Director. The last concert in Montreal was prefaced by a rather emotional ceremony during which the city’s native son was presented with an honorary degree by the prestigious McGill University.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin © Hans van der Woerd
Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Hans van der Woerd

La Maison Symphonique was packed for a Sunday afternoon performance that, at least on paper, didn’t look too exciting. The main work on the program was Bruckner’s Symphony no. 1 in C minor, a work that today’s public is still less familiar with. Contrary to recent trends favoring the earlier, “Linz” version of the symphony, Nézet-Séguin opted for the late, less unruly and more conventional “Vienna” score. It has always been accepted that Bruckner’s first numbered symphony owes more to Mendelssohn, Liszt or Berlioz than to Wagner. In his introductory words, the conductor emphasized a Schubert link and his interpretation minimized the importance of those moments recalling the massive sound world of Wagner. He chose instead to accentuate the melodicity, repetitions and the “divine lengths” redolent of Schubert’s 9th Symphony. Surprisingly for such an energetic conductor, Nézet-Séguin leaned largely towards an early 19th century-inspired lightness and clarity, putting a lesser accent on the Romantic effusiveness and impassioned intensity that are, after all, an integral component of this score’s fabric. At the same time, all the premonitory elements – successive unresolved climaxes, unstable rhythmic patterns – that make this score so important for understanding Bruckner’s subsequent evolution, were properly underlined. The arch of the “Adagio” was beautifully constructed. The “Finale”, arguably one of Bruckner’s most accomplished ones, was relentlessly driven. The orchestra played with suppleness and refinement, producing an admirably balanced sound.

Before the intermission, the Orchestre Métropolitain performance featured the world premiere of a new work by the Canadian composer Stacey Brown, commissioned by the orchestra itself. As explained by its composer, the short piece, Perspectives, was inspired by a geometrical sculpture created by Michel Longtin – one of her music teachers – consisting of rectangular wood blocks of different shapes and colors arranged on top of a wood panel. One perceives this piece of art differently by seeing it from various “perspectives”, and the “voyage” around it becomes the main focus of the artwork. The music itself navigated quite peacefully through a lattice of sonorities produced by different groups of instruments, showcasing the composer’s gift for skillful orchestration, if not necessarily one for melodic inventiveness.

The second piece on the program, Nino Rota’s Harp Concerto (1947) projected a similar image of a well-crafted, beautifully scored and not too attention-demanding work. The composer’s name is, first and foremost, associated with the film scores for such masterpieces as Fellini’s La Strada and La Dolce Vita or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather. Thoughout his career, however, he also created a number of independent orchestral works. Unabashedly neoclassical, pleasant-sounding and with all rough edges smoothed away, they are rarely played today. Maestro Nézet-Séguin brought a lot of color and freshness to a music anchored in Baroque mechanisms, succeeding in making it sound more interesting than it arguably is. Undoubtedly, the performance was a true showcase for the extraordinary talent of harpist Valérie Milot. The young virtuoso’s rendition was so full of nuance and so dynamically rich that it seemed to transcend the instrument’s technical limitations.

It is truly admirable that Nézet-Séguin – who, at this point of his stunning career, could have practically picked any ensemble to collaborate with – has remained faithful to the group that he has overseen since 2000. The results are obvious and commendable. The few recordings that exist don’t give enough credit to their achievements and the instrumentalists of the Orchestre Métropolitain deserve to be seen and heard more outside Quebec.