On a concert featuring Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor, performed by world-renowned soloist Yefim Bronfman nonetheless, it would be fairly easy to fill out the program with light, entertaining romantic music. The style would be consistent across pieces and the audience would get the type of music they know and love from the orchestra. However, on this occasion, conductor and artistic director of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal Kent Nagano made the bold choice to program Charles Ives’ Symphony no. 4. The stark aesthetic contrast between the works of Ives and Tchaikovsky led to an evening of music that was diverse, challenging and very entertaining.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede
The connection between Tchaikovsky and Ives may seem difficult to find, but, as Nagano pointed out, the two composers were contemporaries. While Tchaikovsky composed during the end of the Romantic era, Ives, born a generation later, explored a unique, modernist style. In a way, both composers can be regarded as romantics, although Tchaikovsky more explicitly. Ives is romantic in his use of traditional American hymns and folk music in his own compositions. This could be heard in the first piece on the concert, an orchestral arrangement of the third movement of Ives’ Concord Sonata. This work served as a brief familiarization with the composer’s sound world before the main event, Ives’ Fourth Symphony.

It is not often that a conductor takes time out of a concert to thoroughly explain elements of a work to the audience, but if any piece was deserving of such a treatment, it would be Ives' Fourth. Before performing the piece, Nagano discussed the role of the work’s two conductors, the full choir, the two pianos requiring three pianists, the organist, and the ‘extra violins’ who occasionally stray from the conductor. Groups of percussion and strings are set in different locations around the hall create a spatialized effect. Along with this, conflicting tempos, metres and quartertones make this symphony extremely complex.

The orchestra approached the piece with full force, each section committed to their independent line in the collage of sound. The effect was that of floating through space as various worlds pass by. One can focus on any one world and find something familiar – perhaps a traditional hymn, a patriot song, a marching band piece, a jazz ensemble riff – or one can step back and observe the whole. This was especially the case in the second movement, titled “Comedie”, in which the material piles up until eventually collapsing. The orchestra ventured through a more conventional fugue in the third movement before returning to the chaotic cluster of sound in the fourth. As the conclusion neared, the performers achieved a peaceful atmosphere, the choir singing wordlessly along with sustained strings and sparkling percussion. The performance of the work was a rare opportunity to see the orchestra in a more fragmented setting, the skills of the individual player rising to the foreground.

Following this symphony, soloist Yefim Bronfman took the stage to perform Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. While it seemed as though a work like the Ives symphony might overshadow what was to follow, Bronfman’s playing made an equally strong impression. The work is well suited to Bronfman’s particular style. An imposing figure at the piano, Bronfman makes big chords and octave passages seem effortless. This was on display in the first movement, particularly with the iconic chordal opening. However, Bronfman’s refined sense of touch also provides an almost shocking delicacy to fleeting runs up and down the piano. This light touch was necessary for the gentle second movement. Bronfman skillfully projected his melodies through the hall while maintaining the movement’s light character. The work culminated in the fiery third movement, concluding in a series of rapid piano chords accentuated by affirming orchestral shots.

This concert was, in many ways, a rare and rewarding experience. Along with hearing an exceptional soloist perform a classic concerto, the audience experienced a symphony that is seldom performed due to its size and complexity. The program posed challenges to both performers and listeners, but offered great rewards. The varying style of the works required different modes of listening from the audience. The orchestra flexed its musical muscle, showing that it is not settling in to repeated performances of standard repertoire. From a standpoint of both programming and performance, this concert was a great success.