On the eve of their American tour, the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal played to a sold out hometown audience with Kent Nagano at the helm. The concert program promised an evening of early 20th-century greats including Debussy, Prokofiev and – of course – the concert headliner, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. The evening’s works represent hybrid musics that show the influence of lush, colourful French orchestration alongside the folklore and harmonic idiosyncrasies of Russian writing. The orchestra pulled out all the stops for this performance, matching this strong program with a spirited performance.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede
The first piece on the program, Debussy’s Jeux, is a lesser known ballet programmed by Diaghilev at the Ballet Russes. Though it was choreographed by Nijinsky, it has been overshadowed by the infamous performance that took place at the Champs-Élysées only two weeks later, the première of the Rite of Spring. With melodies scampering, fluttering and interweaving, the work floats by like a cloudy Impressionistic painting. The work is noteworthy for a certain Romantic sentiment that is uncharacteristic of Debussy and features lush orchestration. The OSM captured the free-floating character of the work, the short motifs emerging from various sections of the orchestra only to recede in to blur. The first violin solo near the end of the work had a sense of intimacy which contrasted with the splendor of the full orchestral sections.

The Debussy was followed by a contrast, Prokofiev’s straight-ahead Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major, with Daniil Trifonov launching his debut with the OSM. The first movement charged ahead in its bright and energetic opening. Trifonov was amusing to watch, moving with jagged gestures to match the angular piano solo. He embodied the offbeat rhythms, clearly putting forth all his energy to the part. The orchestra didn’t push the tempo, maintaining a slower but manageable pace. The second movement was a contrast to the driven opening with a more sombre spirit. The energy returned in the third movement, which was memorable for its balance. The rhythms between the piano and orchestra felt most integrated here. Despite the high demands of the concerto as a whole, Trifonov kept up the energy right to the end, particularly through the challenging final passages. Given more years of experience, Trifonov may perform with a more controlled stage presence. For the time being he puts on an impressive show with confidence and a great deal of technical skill.

The concerto was followed by the evening’s main event, the performance of The Rite of Spring. This work was a staple of the OSM under the direction of Charles Dutoit and this set high expectations for the evening’s performance. Kent Nagano delivered a polished rendition, the orchestra finding the balance between independent lines and cohesion required. Nagano, who typically is a more stoic conductor than Dutoit, brought physical expression to this performance. This was necessary in order to oversee the various goings-on in the opening as a rainforest of woodwinds gradually emerge. The orchestra took a broad, stately pace for the work’s famous repeated chords, losing some drama as a result. The slow “Ritual of Abduction” section was a powerful highlight. The progression to the end of the first tableau was driven and suspenseful, the orchestra moving cohesively in jilted rhythms towards the section’s climax. There was a wide range of expression shown in the work, from the evocative soft calls of the second tableau to the powerful dance towards the death at the end.

The orchestra followed the lengthy, challenging Rite with an encore, Ravel’s La Valse. With a blend of Viennese waltz, American big band and French Impressionist colours and textures, the work served as a fine close to an already strong performance. This concert matched a compelling program with an orchestra up to the task of tackling the necessary technical and musical challenges. This level of engagement with the music is what creates excitement in the audience and leaves listeners wanting more after a nearly two-and-a-half hour concert. Although this is the kind of performance that one hopes for on a week-to-week basis, it is far more likely to occur as excitement builds before departing on an international tour.