This weekend the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal concluded a tour of four American cities under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin, its conductor for the past 20 years, half of the ensemble’s 40-year history. The fourth city was Philadelphia, where Nézet-Séguin, just happens to be music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and a stone’s throw from New York City where the affable Canadian is also music director of the Metropolitan Opera. How does he get all that on his business card?

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain
© Orchestre Metropolitan/ François Goupil

Yannick’s astonishing productivity may be the stuff of legends, but there is no doubt as to the quality of his accomplishments and the lovefest that unfolded Sunday among orchestra, audience, conductor, and guest artist – the popular mezzo, Joyce DiDonato.

The synergy among these powerful forces was palpable from the first moments as the lights dimmed and the voice of Yannick, rather than the staff announcer, warmly greeted all present in English, followed by a repeat of the announcement in French. That was all it took to warm up the audience and create a mood of acceptance and anticipation bordering on the euphoric.

During the first half of the concert, the scaled-down OM provided three selections from Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito, written during the last year of his life. Set in ancient Rome, Clemenza just never enjoyed the popularity of other operas by Mozart for a variety of reasons, but Yannick wisely extracted the zesty overture and two deliriously lovely arias for the first half of OM’s final concert on this tour.

Radiant in a cherry-red gown, DiDonato was at the top of her game as she embodied two boundlessly dissimilar characters: Vitellia, the ruthless daughter of the previous emperor, and Sesto, a young admirer who would kill at the command of his beloved. Sesto’s aria, “Parto, parto, ma tu ben mio,” is actually a duet between mezzo and basset horn, in this case played to perfection by Simon Aldrich. DiDonato’s voice was a miracle of expressive charm, modulating between defenseless infatuation and eager bloodlust, but never better than when surrendering to tenderness, floating above the orchestra’s breathless silence.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain
© Orchestre Metropolitan/ François Goupil

The second aria is sung by the object of Sesto’s desire, the scheming Vitellia. DiDonato offered a broad range of emotions and musical intentions within the selection’s all-too-brief duration. Here Aldrich’s basset horn (a member of the clarinet family with a low range and mellow tone) was less a partner and more of a casual obbligato, sometimes overwhelmed by the intensity and volume of the other instruments.

DiDonato’s encore was Cherubino’s aria, “Voi che sapete” from the third act of Le nozze di Figaro, performed with charming flirtatiousness, the soprano interacting with Nézet-Séguin not only musically but also as a whimsical acting partner.

The second half of the program took a sharp turn from Mozartean light-heartedness with the massive Fourth Symphony (“Romantic”) by Anton Bruckner. It’s tempting to think of Bruckner’s symphonic output as one grand, Alpine-scale symphony with more than 35 movements. Listening to any one movement can lead to reflections on the others, even when the composition dates are decades apart.

Nézet-Séguin demonstrated his great versatility and depth as a conductor in this vast work of unfailingly engaging music. Expanded to twice its size before intermission, the orchestra responded to their beloved conductor with clarity, emotional intensity, and a sense of purpose and direction without which Bruckner can sound stuffy and monotonous. It is worth noting that most of the 100-or-so musicians in this performance were women, which should put to rest any lingering sexism from the past that contended female musicians would not have the power and intelligence to give life to music of this scope.

Through rising and descending scales, fluctuations between dramatic peaks and tender interludes, and hymn-like chorales, the work climbs boldly and yet with a sense of caress to heights and depths that hold a mirror to the human soul. While the conclusion of the final movement seemed a bit weak, the ending of the third movement was absolute perfection. How often do we encounter that in a concert, or a lifetime?

The program concluded with an orchestral encore, Poem by Canadian composer, Violet Archer, a brief work rising out of the low strings, developing into an interlude of transcendence, and falling back to the cellos, fading into silence.