The choice of guest conductor Kensho Watanabe to lead Montreal’s Orchestre Métropolitain in an all-Mendelssohn program was welcome but hardly surprising. Watanabe was recently named Assistant Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for a two-year term beginning this fall. As that orchestra’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, remains music director of the Montreal band as well, it was natural to find Watanabe deputizing for “Yannick” on the latter’s home turf.

Kensho Watanabe © David Debalko
Kensho Watanabe
© David Debalko

Watanabe is Japanese-born but American educated (he has been living in the US since 1992). By now he has considerable conducting experience under his belt, having held posts with the Yale Symphony Orchestra, (also the school where he earned degrees in both biology and violin), the San Diego Symphony and Curtis Opera Theater. As a violinist he has been on call as a substitute violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra for the past four years.

Watanabe’s program consisted of the popular formula of overture–concerto–symphony. While he did not manage to put a strong individual stamp on any of his interpretations, he showed himself firmly in control of the orchestra and comfortable before an audience. As Nézet-Séguin always does in Montreal, Watanabe spoke informally, with charm and without notes, to his audience. He could not express himself in French, as is pretty much de rigueur in this francophone city, but he gained instant rapport by explaining that “As you know, I come from America, where the political climate at the moment is such that I had no time to learn French.”

Watanabe strongest suit is the elegant lyricism with which he infuses long musical lines. Particularly memorable were the second theme of the first movement and the entire slow movement of the “Scottish” Symphony. He also knows how to shape a movement’s architecture so that the key climactic moment truly stands out, then how to disperse the accumulated tension with careful pacing. This quality was in evidence on several occasions, including the Overture to The Fair Melusina, the first movement of the symphony, and the transition to the symphony’s finale. Muddy textures frequently marred Watanabe’s otherwise fine work, a result possibly of his unfamiliarity with the Maison symphonique, which can be a notoriously fickle hall to work in. Timpani present a constant problem here, often rendering textures thick and opaque. Otherwise the orchestra showed itself in good shape. The rhythmic precision in the symphony’s tricky second movement was impressive, there was some beautiful solo work from the principal clarinet, and the horn section did itself proud, as it usually does. Woodwinds, however, still need to work on intonation.

In her role as concertmaster, Yukari Cousineau has distinguished herself by raising the standard of string playing in this orchestra, particularly in the warmth and homogeneity of its sound. As soloist, she gave a memorable performance of the Berg Concerto a few years back, but she did not seem comfortable with Mendelssohn’s E minor concerto. Rough edges, rhythmic insecurity and stiff phrasing plagued much of her performance, though she nevertheless won the audience’s appreciation through the brilliance of her tone in the upper range and warmth in the lower range.

Kensho Watanabe has led the Orchestre Métropolitain once before, in 2014. The personal relationship between the two appears to be warm, and the musical results rewarding. It was a wise choice to bring him back, and one looks forward to future visits from this talented young conductor.