A preponderance of professional conductors are accomplished pianists. Yannick Nézet-Séguin excelled on the piano in his student days at Montreal's Conservatoire de Musique. However, in the early stages of his conducting career he did not take on engagements as both featured soloist and conductor, unlike performers such as Leonard Bernstein or André Previn. Most pianist/conductors gradually abandon the piano in favour of full-time conducting. At this concert, the well-established maestro made his debut in the dual role of featured soloist and conductor.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin takes to the piano in Montréal
© Antoine Saito

In an interview last year, Nézet-Séguin said that he had been using his time during the first lockdown to get back to piano practice. Hence, he was ready to take on Mozart's Piano Concerto no. 12 in A major with his Orchestre Métropolitain. In his introductory remarks, he mentioned that assuming the role of a performer heightened his respect for orchestral musicians, who are expected to execute demanding repertoire with flawless proficiency. With respect to the Mozart, he said that to the listener it should seem exceedingly simple. In reality for the performers, it is anything but!

To his credit, Nézet-Séguin played this work with impressive facility. Both orchestra and soloist performed with admirable expressiveness and fluidity. Nézet-Séguin’s first movement cadenza showcased his virtuosity. The reduced string section was vibrant when playing forte, but failed to attain an equally rich sonority during the delicate passages. In this acoustic, some of the left-hand (lower range) piano sounds lacked clarity, but the characteristics of the various themes were effectively delineated, which resulted in a delightful rendition of this concerto.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts the Orchestre Métropolitain
© Antoine Saito

Brahms' Third Symphony concluded the programme, the OM sounding more polished and confident here. Their interpretation was cohesive, as a consistent stylistic approach was adhered to as the thematic material made its way through various sections of the orchestra. Principal clarinetist Simon Aldrich as well as principal horn Louis-Philippe Marsolais were standouts, particularly in the first movement. In the Andante second movement, the overall contour achieved was astutely crafted. Long phrases were beautifully sustained, particularly by the clarinets and bassoons. The ebb and flow of the third movement, a gem of the Romantic repertoire, resulted in sublime music-making. Particularly in this movement, Nézet-Séguin attained a remarkable level of synergy with his Orchestre Métropolitain. Powerful tuttis enhanced the climactic moments of the final movement.

The concert had opened with Giancarlo Castro D'Addona's Diversity for nine brass players as well as a trap set drummer. D'Addona is a Venezuelan-Spanish composer, conductor and trumpet player and this rhythmically dynamic work employs many Latin riffs that were solidly handled by the OM ensemble members. There was some fine lead trumpet playing evident. Despite a few balance issues, this performance was most enjoyable.

Orchestre Métropolitain – and audience – at La Maison Symphonique

As a Covid-related precaution, all instrumentalists were distanced from one another. This spacing resulted in heightened sonority, but rhythmic cohesiveness seemed more challenging than would have been the case with a traditional seating arrangement.

It was wonderful for Montreal audiences to resume attending live performances. It was somewhat surreal to have fewer than 250 attendees (a consequence of pandemic related restrictions) in such a cavernous concert hall. Nonetheless, the collective silence reminded me of the respect that is typically afforded orchestral performers by a packed house at the Berlin Philharmonie. Despite the small audience numbers, the response to Nézet-Séguin and his Montreal orchestra was nothing short of effusive. Many recent performances by these outstanding musicians are available, streamed on the Orchestre Métropolitain’s website.