Attendance figures at Orchestre Métropolitain performances spike when their Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is on the podium. Once again the house was packed, this time with a smorgasbord of early 20th-century works on the bill.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin
© Denis Germain

The focus of the evening was the continuation of a cycle Sibelius symphonies, recorded for ATMA classique, this time featuring the popular Fifth Symphony. Perhaps being under the gun to produce an acceptable one-take recording accounted for a skittish start, but soon enough the OM was back on secure footing and their passionate rendition leapt off the page. Nézet-Séguin and his charges achieved a pleasing pastoral mood in the Andante mosso. With the exception of the double basses, the strings should have been more synchronised and resonant in their extended pizzicato passages, but redeemed themselves in the subsequent Allegro molto  where their synergistic esprit de corps was particularly impressive. In the final Largamente assai, the horns could have been both stronger and more faithfully observant of the tenuto markings on those half notes that precede a leap to a higher pitch in the triumphant “swan theme” that drives this symphony to its majestic finish. Nézet-Séguin and the OM players confidently nailed the final short notes, which are perilous due to the lengthy silences that separate them. With minimal retakes, the OM will have a laudable recording of this chestnut.

David Jalbert
© Denis Germain

The Sibelius was preceded by Prokofiev's Piano Concerto no. 3 in C major, featuring Québecois pianist David Jalbert who handled this devilishly difficult showpiece with aplomb. At the outset, just as the audiece were beginning to enjoy Simon Aldrich's gorgeous clarinet solo, a loud alarm sounded offstage; Nézet-Séguin wisely opted to restart once the disturbance had been silenced. In the initial Andante, moods ranging from ominous to shimmering were elicited and the musicians proceeded to ace the frenetic ending of the opening movement. In the protracted solo piano section that begins the slow movement Jalbert's right hand evoked a gamut of expressive shadings. When the orchestra joined in, a stunning ethereal effect was finessed by Nézet-Séguin. Kudos to all the performers who collaborated with remarkable sensitivity in the technically demanding finale. Jalbert has a great deal of recital and chamber music experience; adding more power to his arsenal will enable him to join the ranks of pianists able to fully leverage concertos that employ a large modern orchestra.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal
© Denis Germain

The concert began with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's Ballade for orchestra, which was the most securely handled of the three compositions on this programme. Nézet-Séguin led the OM in a reading that was tight and thoroughly rehearsed; both the balance and tuning were top notch. Not only were individual phrases cohesively shaped, but the overriding interpretive arc maximised the composition's expressiveness. It was abundantly evident that the musicians were going for broke, yearning to earn eye contact, a smile or a nod from their revered conductor. Their remarkable efforts made for a thrilling concert.

Now in his 23rd year at the helm of the OM, Nézet-Séguin continues to astound Montrealers with his uncanny ability to inspire players to give their absolute best. It is a luxury in North America for a city to have two top tier professional orchestras, and the substantial public support that both Montreal orchestras have garnered is very much to their credit.