The program of the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal’s evening concert could be described as an orchestral hit parade. With the array of colours and timbres of Stravinsky’s The Firebird, the emotional contrasts of Strauss’ symphonic poem, Don Juan, and the rising excitement of Ravel’s Boléro, this concert featured orchestral staples representing diverse compositional approaches. These works were brought together to showcase programmatic music, as each work draws on poetry or dance as its inspiration. However, the three composers on this program are also known for their masterful orchestration ability. Assorted instrumental techniques, virtuosic passages and emotional contrasts served as tools for the orchestra to develop each works' musical characters and moods.

Kent Nagano © Felix Broede
Kent Nagano
© Felix Broede
The concert opened with the subterranean rumbling of Stravinsky’s Firebird. Written by the composer near the beginning of his career, this work draws on the fables of a Russian fairy-tale world. A number of the story’s characters are represented by sweeps through moods and play with harmony and colour. The suite demands attention with shifts from one scene to the next as abrupt juxtapositions can occur. The orchestra expressed these contrasts well, moving from dark to light and playful. A particular clarity and delicacy was achieved through soft, trembling passages, the strings almost disappearing into the distance alongside a pastoral horn call. The work’s magical, other-worldly feel was achieved by a number of instrumental techniques that obscured or enhanced the sounds of particular instruments. There was a theatricality to the positioning of trumpets in the lofts around the hall, in many cases playing right next to audience members. The most famous passages of the suite featuring the Firebird character were turbulent and driving forward. Kent Nagano and the orchestra imbued the work with a sense of excitement, sprinkling the magic dust that brought the fairy tale creatures to life.

The following work, Strauss’ Don Juan, brought forth another set of characters. One of Strauss’ first symphonic works with a program, it was inspired by Don Juan’s search for the ideal woman. This charged, chromatic work presents challenges, as such a piece could easily grow over-the-top. However, the orchestra took care to control balance. The ensemble clearly articulated the contrast between alternating motives, juxtaposing the protagonist’s energetic, virile theme and the more lyrical “feminine” theme. This variation was well-paced, leading towards a heightened state of intensity. The work also showcased the ensemble’s virtuosity, in particular with rapid runs through the violin section.

The final piece of the evening was Ravel’s Bolero, a work much loved by concert-going audiences. The piece is an example of a composer cutting things down to their simplest form: there are no changes in harmony, there is no complex structure. Aside from the ever growing dynamic intensity, the only real development of this piece is found in shifts and addition of musical timbres. The orchestra controlled the overall dynamic trajectory, beginning extraordinarily soft in order to provide room for growth over the piece. It can be quite astonishing after focusing for some time on the woodwind theme to find that, in fact, the dynamics of the background layer have been rising gradually just outside of view. The blend of the woodwind melody as the theme progressed was impressive, seeming to fuse seamlessly. Though Bolero is hypnotic in its sheer number of repetitions, it is a piece which audiences seem never to tire of, and it served as a rousing closing work for the evening.

This concert was an excursion through musical scenes and states, with a myriad of orchestral colours and musical characters along the way. Nagano approached the pieces with an emphasis on expressivity. This allowed for the orchestra to pull out all the stops on early 20th-century standard works, forming a program with music that could charm an audience while still presenting challenging material and an exciting variety of colour and atmosphere.

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