L’Orchestre symphonique de Montréal has innovatively addressed the common summer season goal of reaching out to new audiences. Although they have not eschewed a traditional series of concerts in various city parks, they have additionally developed the Classical Spree, which is akin to an eclectic Fringe Festival. Offerings include lectures, workshops, multimedia presentations, dance recitals, yoga classes as well as a diverse array of indoor and outdoor concerts . Events are held in a wide variety of downtown venues and typically last about one hour. In a city that already boasts internationally acclaimed summer jazz and comedy festivals, the Classical Spree has managed to earn a spot in the top tier of Montreal's summer galas.

Bruce Liu and the Orchestre symphonique de Montréal
© Antoine Saito

The draw for this particular offering was local prodigy Bruce Liu, winner of the 2021 International Chopin Piano Competition, who provided the highlight of the evening. In Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Liu was, as anticipated, technically brilliant. Surprisingly, he displayed the poise and polish that would be more typically associated with a pianist with decades of experience as featured soloist with major orchestras. Liu was attuned to his orchestral collaborators and spontaneously reacted to what he was hearing from them. A bright piano sound was showcased, yet formidable power was brought to the fore when warranted. Rafael Payare should have reined in his forces in some of the orchestral tuttis. The many fast sections of this pianistic tour de force were taken quickly enough to be exhilarating, yet each and every note was audible. The audience was held spellbound throughout Liu’s encore. 

The concert had opened with Scorpius by Canadian composer R Murray Schafer. This rhythmically innovative composition thoroughly exploited a vast  percussion section. Kudos to tuba player Austin Howle, whose virtuosity was displayed in many sections of this work.

Rafael Payare
© Antoine Saito

In deference to the “Music of the Americas” theme of this summer’s festival, Payare chose the Bachianas brasileriras no. 7 of Villa-Lobos to round out the program. In the opening Preludio, there were many delicately dovetailed phrases sensitively shared amongst the woodwind section. The depth of the OSM’s brass section was on display  in the Giga, particularly impressive since many of those players had performed a physically taxing brass ensemble program just a few hours earlier. The thickly orchestrated Toccata seemed to lack a cohesive interpretative approach. However in the Fuga, meticulous attention was paid to consistently shaping the phrases of the subject, its initial statement by the OSM’s cello section exquisitely played. Payare brought the work to a powerful and deftly executed conclusion.

The OSM was consistently solid in this program of technically challenging pieces that are seldom programmed. Given the orchestra’s myriad commitments during the Classical Spree, rehearsal time would have been at a premium. Despite these challenges, the OSM turned in a first rate performance, testament to the stellar skills of the ensemble’s members.