Wednesday night’s concert featuring l’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal conducted by James Conlon was billed as “Midori performs Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto” but, as is often the case, it was the music of another composer that stole the show. Being a child prodigy, as Midori was, must have its darker consequences and attempting to leave the image of the prodigiously gifted child behind and reinvent oneself as an accomplished adult interpreter must be one of the most challenging. There can be few things more wearisome than living with a legend, one fixed in time – especially if you are the legend. Midori has been performing before the public for over 30 years now since her debut at age 11. She has added the role of teacher and UN Ambassador for Peace to her résumé, but she still wafted onto the stage with the grace and elegance of a teenage ballerina. Time seemed, for an instant, to have stood still.

James Conlon © Dan Steinberg for LA Opera
James Conlon
© Dan Steinberg for LA Opera

The years have deepened her musical approach. Indeed the musical conception was of a piece but, occasionally, the playing lacked homogeneity. Although there were several phrases of real eloquence and moments of true distinction, there were also ungainly shaped and drawn lines, lapses in intonation, pale tone and hazy articulation. The second movement especially was strangely ineffective, with little emotional appeal or engagement. Rarely were phrases caressed or sustained. It must be said that Midori was not helped by Conlon's somewhat overbearing, cursory and lacklustre support. Ultimately it was a performance missing the romantic spirit and poetic vision that so characterizes much of Mendelssohn's works and particularly this concerto.

The concert closed with a seemingly strange choice of Brahms' Variations on a theme by Haydn. As is now well known, the theme was not Haydn's but taken from an old hymn known as the Saint Anthony's chorale. Brahms was obsessed, not to say paralysed with fear, at the thought of being compared to his idol Beethoven, especially with regard to the writing of symphonies. Composed when Brahms had just turned 40 and had yet to compose any of his symphonies, it is hard not to consider Variations on a theme by Haydn as a trial run for upcoming symphonies. In a real sense, the hand of Beethoven is here often placed firmly on the shoulders of Brahms. The fifth and sixth variations (both Vivaces) can almost be viewed as evolving, structurally, from a Beethoven Scherzo while the Finale (Andante) has the formal majesty and substance of a closing movement of many a Beethoven symphony.

After the initial theme (an exercise in woodwind and brass co-habitation), Brahms takes the opportunity of experimenting with a variety of musical ideas as in the fourth variation (Andante con moto) that is almost an exposé in orchestral sonorities. But the work is more than mere symphonic research and development or an exercise in post-Beethoven structure. Brahms had already developed his personal means of expression and the trademark textured orchestral sound and palette of colours are already present. Conlon, conducting from memory, emphasized the formal structure of the work admirably but neglected the expressive power of the piece. For example, the seventh variation (Grazioso) lacked the requested grace and elegance and too often Conlon let the momentum of phrases get away from him.

The evening started with Alexander von Zemlinsky's symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The little mermaid) based on Andersen’s fairy tale. A protegé of Brahms, Zemlinsky taught Arnold Schoenberg and, indeed, Die Seejungfrau was created in 1905 during the same concert as Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande. The influence of Brahms and Mahler is often heard in Die Seejungfrau, a work conceived within a lushly post-romantic framework. Equally adept in descriptive evocations as in depicting the emotions of Andersen’s fairy-tale world, the piece is in three parts, the first rhythmically challenging while the second is notable for his use of doubled strings to increase the emotional temperature à la Puccini and Richard Strauss. The third part is characterized by Zemlinsky's ability to sustain his story-telling through an impressive opulence of orchestral colour and nuance without sacrificing musical lucidity.

This magnificent score demonstrated once more the sectional and individual strengths of the orchestra, with outstanding solos from concertmaster Andrew Wan and bass clarinettist, André Moisan. Conlon has made a speciality of “Entartete musik” (“Degenerate music”) composers of the Nazi era, and more specifically Zemlinsky. His conviction in the music of Zemlinsky is obvious and he kept the intensity of the performance at white-heat levels, demonstrating admirable clarity of vision and direction. Though his sense of conviction and engagement was absolute, his sense of orchestral balance and tonal variety was less evident. Yet, this was a discovery to be treasured, a work of immense musical scope, power and beauty.