In the opening concert of the 2016/17 season of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal (OSM), Kent Nagano did not set out to wow with in-your-face grandeur and power but rather with subtlety and refinement. Until last night I didn’t think it was possible to “intellectualise” the worldly pleasures and licentious profanity depicted in Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana to sophistication, almost elegance. Nagano did just that. Here was tangible evidence of his fertile imagination and skilful execution. 

Nagano’s tempo in the choral opening “O Fortuna” was deliberate and measured, setting the tone for the rest of the work.  It was not so much a parade of crashing cymbals, pounding timpani and massive choral avalanches, as a meticulous guide through the work’s fine contours and nuances. Refusing to go down the well-trodden path of voluminous pyrotechnics, Nagano’s almost cerebral presentation of he work was surprisingly subdued yet refreshing.

The sonority and diction of the tenors and basses in the Choeur de L'OSM were superb, most noticeably in the first few songs in the “Primo vere” (In Springtime) collection. The balance between the male and female singers was well maintained, and the female singers who took over the parts sometimes done by a boys’ choir did an outstanding job deftly handling plentiful melismas.

The large orchestra’s rapport with the relatively modest choir (just over 110 singers) was smooth and seamless, with the full palette of orchestral colours skilfully and comprehensivly applied. Variety in pacing helped ensure that progress was not monotonous; the large percussion section didn’t overwhelm the performance; the brass didn’t succumb to wanton blaring; the woodwinds were sharp and crisp; and the strings had resplendent moments. 

Baritone Russell Braun sounded uneven and wobbly, especially lacking in rhythmic vigour in “Estuans interius” (Burning Inside). Tenor Frédéric Antoun valiantly scaled the extreme heights of the infamous “Olim lacus colueram” (Once I lived on lakes), the bizarre song about the plight of a barbecued swan, but could have pushed the limits of the grostesque even further. Soprano Aline Kutan undoubtedly provided most of the solo vocal highlights of the evening. Apart from resonant volume, her honey-layered nightingale voice stood out in “In trutina” (In the balance), and the sweetness didn’t diminish even in the high notes of “Dulcissime” (Sweetest one). Why have I not come across her outstanding talent before?

Earlier in the evening, the OSM had opened with Ligeti’s Concert Românesc, which he composed in 1951 but which didn’t properly see the light of day in public performance until two decades later. Apparently an out-of-place F sharp in the final movement got up the noses of the Hungarian censors, who were not moved by the work’s otherwise approachability based partly on folk music Ligeti had transcribed from wax cylinders.

An aura of glowing warmth in OSM’s strings in the lyrical opening made it all the more attractive and endearing; the skipping piccolo and clarinet, with assistance from the violin and snare drum, made the ensuing dance come alive with humour galore. Lugubrious clarinet and horns over shivering strings ushered in a fleeting, Gershwin-like interlude before successive woodwinds brought the third movement to a quiet close. A solo trumpet announced the arrival of the final movement marked by a whirling and pulsating violin in a devilish dance. A single blow on bass drum and percussion put paid to a moaning horn yearning to make a final statement. It was a fine prelude to an evening of choral debauchery in Carmina Burana. Such display of skill and imagination bodes well for the rest of the season with the OSM.